Being a working writer means just that … working. And it also means continually strategizing ways to cobble together an income. Especially if you have no back-up salary, your own or a partner’s, to count on for the groceries, the medical bills, the rent.
Here’s an example of what I mean.
Last year I published three new books, a verse novel, Little Dog, Lost, and two picture books, Halloween Forest and Dinosaur Thunder. All received starred reviews. My writing life seemed to be in order. But I’ve long known that starred reviews and big sales are two different things. And so, one day, nearly 200 pages into Blue-Eyed Wolf, a young-adult novel that I knew I wasn’t going to finish any time soon, it occurred to me that I’d nearly run out of new books in the pipeline.
(Deciding to write a long novel when I can sell shorter, younger work is hardly practical. It may not even be wise. Longer means, inevitably, more time committed, and more time committed doesn’t mean more income when the book is published.)
As I was considering all this, Holiday House came to me asking for a picture book to be paired with Halloween Forest. So, glad to be writing something that I knew an editor was actually looking for, I set the novel aside to try to find my own heart in her idea. In the process, I produced several picture-book manuscripts that pleased me but, for one reason or another, weren’t what was wanted. Returning to the same artist inevitably creates a different set of requirements for the text. I did finally come up with the right manuscript, Crinkle! Crackle! Crack! Curiously, it was the one I’d written first, but I’d tucked it away in the bowels of my computer because I’d decided it wasn’t right. (Which tells you that my own instincts aren’t always reliable.)
In the meantime, I have just received notice of an offer on one of the other manuscripts I especially love, The World is Singing. So—deep breath—I now have more books in the pipeline.
At various times this past year, in response to ideas that niggled, I’ve also paused to work on other short pieces. One, You are the Love of Baby, has sold to Chronicle Books for their new personalized books. Another, Higgledy-Piggledy, is just starting its journey.
And then every few months I return to a commitment I made a couple of years ago to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for their new Celebrating the Fifty States series. The books are brief, but each requires another pause.
Finally, there is Patches, the young verse novella I began this winter when I found myself having to dictate because of my broken arm. I’m close to completing a first draft of that.
All while Blue-Eyed Wolf waits.
It’s certainly a disjointed way to work. Though while I’ve been pursuing other projects, I’ve continued my research for Blue-Eyed Wolf and rethought important aspects of the story. Thus this very impractical project stays alive while I cobble together a living from my writing.
It doesn’t sound like “economic security,” does it?
It doesn’t even sound like the life I imagined for myself forty years ago when I waded into the cold water of my first novel.
Am I complaining? Not at all. I feel blessed every time I sit down to write, whatever I’m writing. I never forget how fortunate I am to be paid to do the only work I’ve ever wanted to do.
But still, all of it is—and this is the bottom line—work. Good work. Good, good work, but still work.
And that’s the basis, more than anything else, for whatever success I’ve had in my career. I am a working writer.