Category Archives: Writing

Pure Junk or the Great American Novel?

Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

I find it interesting and a bit amusing, entirely understandable, too, that I seem to get the strongest responses from my readers out there when I use this blog to talk about my own failures, the places I trip up, the projects I struggle with, the manuscripts that, after all that struggle, still get turned down.

I understand.  Of course.  Especially I understand how difficult the journey is for those of you out there who have been writing with all your hearts, often for years, and have yet to be published.  Or were published once or twice, perhaps more, and can’t seem to make it happen again.

It would be consoling to know that even someone with a long-established career can share the experience of being turned down.  But the consolation is more than misery loves company, even though misery does.  It’s recognizing that failing—or at least failing to get the reception we need—is just part of a complex and very nuanced process.  An inevitable part, especially if we are taking risks with our work.

The hardest thing about staking our lives on creative work is the difficulty of knowing, truly knowing when we are hitting the mark.  I remember so clearly how it felt to write my first novel. I didn’t have a clue whether the words I put down on paper day after day were pure junk or the great American novel.

The feedback that followed publication soon let me know that my novel was neither.  But if my work had never been published, the question would still be out there.

Writing is very much like singing.  If you’re singing in the shower—or anywhere else for your own pleasure—others’ opinions about the sounds you’re making don’t matter very much.  (Unless you are disrupting your housemates too badly.)  But professional singers have vocal coaches, because they must please an audience, and none of us can hear the sounds we are making accurately from inside their own heads.

Writers need reader coaches.

Recently I happened to tell a non-writer friend about the great number of readers I have had for the novel I’m just finishing.  And she said, “I’ve never thought of writing as a group activity.”  I was surprised at the term “group activity” applied to this solitary process of mine.  But the more I thought about it, the more accurate that description seemed.

It isn’t just my agent and editor I depend upon . . . and reviewers once a book makes its way into the world.  I depend on other readers, usually writer/readers, who can look at my work half formed and see both possibility and impediment.

Writing is a little bit like living.  None of us can truly do it alone.

I’m better at judging what I’m writing while I’m writing it now than I was when I waded into the cold water of that first novel.  But every time I try something significantly different from what I’ve done before, my “better” isn’t so great.  Pure junk or the great American novel?  The question arises again.

And sometimes I can feel great confidence in a piece only to have my agent say, gently, “I think we’ll put this one aside” or to have the intended editor say, “Try again.”

I once had an editor call me after I’d delivered an already-under-contract manuscript for a novel and ask, “Marion, are you all right?”

That one took a lot of revision!

The lesson here?  We may work alone, but we cannot survive without one another.  To go on creating, year after year, we must surround ourselves with those who have judgment and honesty . . . and a whole lot of compassion.

Nobody asked you to write that novel

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My favorite thing to remember about novel-writing is an observation I saw taped to a friend’s wall in her office in graduate school: “Nobody asked you to write that novel”. Therefore novel-writing is a choice–you can always stop, always keep going. You are free to do whatever you want. Most novelists come to writing novels because they have been avid readers. Almost all novels, because they are capacious and hard to contain, are imperfect. Normally, “perfect” and “ambitious” cannot co-exist in the same novel. Therefore, most readers have plenty of opinions about how even a wonderful, beloved, and thrilling novel might be made just a little better. And so we try it. And we discover that it is both harder and easier than it looks.

  1. Be the tortoise, not the hare. You learn a lot by taking your time, paying attention to what is going on around you, and keeping at it. Every draft is first and foremost an exploration before it is a work of art. You have to finish exploring before you begin shaping, so it is all important to get to the end of the first draft.
  2. Read a lot. You take in a great deal of knowledge without intending to. Familiarity and pleasure breed ease. When you read other novels, you get models of what to do and what not to do. When you read other sorts of literature, your idea of what a novel is shapes itself by contrast. And every subject requires some sort of research, if only to stimulate your own ideas.
  3. Look and listen. Never hesitate to watch people, eavesdrop, and ask “innocent” questions. You want to know how individuals comport themselves. Novels thrive on the energy of real life. Characters in novels seek to emulate human variety. You cannot know human variety and maintain good manners at the same time.
  4. Exhaust your own curiosity about your project before showing it to someone else. Let your own ideas play out without getting input from others, then, after you show them your work, use their responses as input to push you forward. It may take you several drafts and a long time to come to the end of your ability to tackle a given subject, and when you do, you might be satisfied or dissatisfied with your product. If you are dissatisfied, the input of others will give you ideas for how to shape your novel further. If you are satisfied, the input of others will let you know if your novel is readable and accessible.
  5. Focus on enjoying the process and let the rewards, such as they are or might be, take care of themselves. If you love the process, you will be happy. If you focus on possible rewards, you will be unhappy.

So, even though nobody asked you to write that novel, you may, you should, and good luck to you!

Jane Smiley from an interview with Publisher’s Weekly

On Finding a New Vision

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When I’m teaching, I often talk about revision as re-vision, finding a new vision.  It sounds good, talking about it that way.

But the reality is that a new vision can be hard to come by.  And letting go of the old vision to make room for the new can be even harder.

In fact, letting go can sometimes be the most difficult part of writing . . . and the most creative part of it.

I have been working since shortly after I completed the text of my most recent picture book, The Stuff of Stars, on coming up with a companion book.  Mostly because the territory I researched in order to write it still compelled me.  Also, because reaching for the stars seems the most credible way of reaching for the hope so needed to write any kind of children’s book in this disheartening world.

First I came up with a text the editor said was “lovely.”  But she also said it was too much like The Stuff of Stars.  Even if I had wanted to take it to another editor for another opinion, I couldn’t, given the inevitable non-compete clause I had signed.  If it was too much like it was too much like to be out there from another publisher.

So with a great deal of sighing, I let that one go.

I thought and rethought and, in the meantime, I went on probing the stars, the origins of our universe, the fundamental nature of reality as scientists today can define it.  Through a friend, I came across a fascinating book by an Italian physicist, Carlo Rovelli, called Seven Brief Lessons and Physics.  I read and reread it.  And reread it again.  I can’t say still that I understand it, but it fascinates me.

And from that I began to reenter my idea of a companion book to The Stuff of Stars.

I worked and worked and worked on it.  Worked, first, to discover my core concept, to understand for myself what I wanted to say.

Worked, next, to frame what I had discovered into lyrical language, language that could carry my ideas through their musicality so that a child could listen and enjoy, even if understanding come later.

Worked, finally, to draw the whole into a pleasing shape and to balance that shape against the needs of the larger world.

And then, at last, I presented it to the one editor I wanted to have it.

The manuscript engages her.  It interests her.  Enough, even, for her to begin to think about illustrators.

But not in the form it exists.  Too much crammed into my text.  She suggests instead I use a long Afterword to explain what I want to explain.  The text itself she wants to be simpler, cleaner.

And she is probably right.  She’s an editor who is usually right.  Which doesn’t keep my heart from being attached, still, to the text precisely as I submitted it to her.

Attached and working at letting go.

Another sigh here.  A long one.

So this is where I remember giving that lecture on revision.  I remember the demonstration I used to give on letting go, my arm stretched out before me, my hand firmly closed, holding.  My hand opening slowly, releasing . . . releasing . . .  As though I were giving a baby bird the opportunity of flight.

My heart releasing, too.  Just a bit.

The most creative act of all.

Letting go.

But not an easy one.

Revising.  Re-visioning.

Does it get easier for having done it so many times before?  It doesn’t feel easy in the moment, but perhaps it is.

It feels a bit like setting out to swim across a wide, cold lake.  If I’ve done it a dozen times before, two dozen, a hundred, then I know, at least, that my strokes have accomplished the task in the past, that they will probably accomplish it again if I don’t lose heart.

So that’s what I’m working on first . . . my heart.

Once my heart has settled into the new approach to a story I truly want to tell, all the rest will follow.

A new vision.

A Hard Way to Earn a Living

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Writing is a hard way to earn a living.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s a privileged one, too.  More than thirty years ago I left a marriage of 28 years and began cobbling together a living from writing, teaching and lecturing.  I don’t know how I would have survived—emotionally as well as financially—if that cobbling hadn’t worked.  And I never forget how fortunate I am that it has.

I suspect, though, given the way I see publishing evolving, fewer and fewer writers are going to be able to do what I and many of my contemporaries have done.

That’s because of a number of factors.  The Authors Guild tells us, again and again, that electronic publishing—and the piracy that seems, inevitably, to accompany it—threatens writers’ livelihoods in profound ways.  (As it has long since gobbled up the livelihood of most professional musicians.)

Writers’ income across the board is down by well more than thirty percent.  Long-term writers, those of us accustomed to supporting ourselves with this good work, are down more than anyone.

But there is another factor, at least in the field of children’s and young-adult publishing.  I once ran the statistics about how many children’s books were being published in 1976, when I entered the field, and how many were being published in 2016, forty years later.  Removing young adult books from the mix since those didn’t exist in their present form forty years ago and not counting self-published books or considering publishers’ enormous backlists, six and a half times more books were being published in 2016 than when I entered the field.

It’s hard for us writers to complain about overpublishing.  Would we prefer not to be published at all rather than to have too much competition?

Not much of a choice.

At the same time, the budgets for public and school libraries, the institutional market that in 1976 accounted for 80% of juvenile book purchases, are growing smaller every year.  And the institutional budgets that remain must, of necessity, be divided between paper books and technology of all sorts.  In the last statistics I heard, institutional purchases account for only 20% of juvenile books sold.

I see truly fine books come out, again and again, get lovely reviews, and disappear, because they don’t garner enough attention to survive in that crowded market.

Children’s and young-adult writers, in all the years I’ve been in the field, have been blessed.  We have more opportunities to supplement our income through speaking in schools and at conferences than other writers.  In fact, I know many children’s writers who earn far more traveling and speaking than from royalties.  (Our version of the musicians’ dilemma that keeps them on the road giving concerts instead of staying home creating new music and selling recordings.)

For my part, I have loved what I have received from talking to children in schools, from encountering teachers in large gatherings, but I have run out of energy for such encounters.  Entirely.

So . . . where are we children’s book writers headed?

I think we’re headed for a place where fewer and fewer will be able to devote their lives, fulltime, to creating.  Especially in a world where it’s the unusual family that can live on one income, more writers of all stripes will be doing other work, fulltime, and doing their writing “on the side.”

Is “on the side” good enough for our literary heritage?  It will have to be.  Neither writers nor readers are going to have a choice.

But in these final days of my career, I get up in the morning and settle into whatever writing project is waiting for me with the deepest gratitude.  What a privileged way it has been to spend a life, this spinning out of words and ideas all day long!

What an uncertain, fraught, privileged life it has been!

Remembering Childhood

Marion 2nd Grade

Recently someone asked me, “Why is it that you have such detailed memories of your childhood?”  She commented that she did not.

I reached for an answer and came up with pure air.  Why do I remember?  Why doesn’t everyone?

Years ago, I had a student whose work was technically competent but quite lacking in emotional resonance.  One day during a manuscript consultation I said to her, “Tell me about your childhood.”  Her face began to glow.  “Oh,” she said.  “I had the most wonderful childhood!”

And that was precisely what was wrong with her work.

It’s not that you have to have had a uniquely difficult childhood to be able to write for children.  It is that nobody, nobody in the world has a wonderful childhood.  Exactly as nobody has a wonderful adulthood.  We all have days.  Some days are wonderful, to be sure.  Others are boring or challenging or downright painful.  But anyone who thinks she had a whole “wonderful childhood” has forgotten what that time was like.  And who can write successfully for children from such a place?

Ironically, though, I suspect that part of the reason I remember my childhood so vividly is because my mother was one of those “wonderful childhood” folks.  She spoke often of her own childhood on a Midwestern farm and always with deep reverence, so deep a reverence that I learned reverence, too.

My mother had such a strong need to remember her own childhood as perfect that she tried to make mine that way, too.  As a consequence she lied away every inconvenient truth.  And two passions pulled me into the career of my adult life, a profound reverence for childhood and an equally powerful need to tell children the truth.

I remember clearly the first time I ever wrote from that childhood place.  I was in college and, while I ordinarily occupied myself with more “productive” activities, things that might actually garner course credits, I sat down to my typewriter one quiet afternoon and tapped out a paragraph intended for no eyes but my own.  In a few words I described standing barefoot on a sunny sidewalk in my backyard, then stepping off into the cool tickle of the grass.  Only that.  But that paragraph emerged onto the page with lights flashing. “Important!  Important!” those lights said.  “Pay attention!  This matters!”

I did pay attention, because while the paragraph itself soon went the way of all scrap paper, the silken feel of the words, their heft and substance, stayed with me.  My mother’s reverence for childhood made those words shine.

It was many years later before I sat down to write about childhood again, and this time, carrying my other flag, I wrote about sexual abuse.  I had suffered such abuse as an adolescent at the hands of my family physician, but having distanced myself from that memory, I wrote instead out of a passionate defense of foster children, whom I had come to know too often suffered such abuse.

I wrote about sexual abuse so long before the “me-too” movement that no one quite knew what to do with the story that emerged.  Nonetheless, James Cross Giblin, perhaps the bravest editor in the children’s book industry at the time, brought Foster Child into the world.

Clearly, my mother’s deeply held reverence for the days of her childhood impacted me profoundly.  The ways she tried so hard to “protect” me did, too.  Does my ability to remember rise out of a curious mixture of reverence and defiance?

Perhaps.

Or maybe the answer is the same as the one I once received from my partner in response to a very different question.  When I first met her I was astonished to learn that she comes from a family of four daughters, all of them lesbian.  “How do you get statistics like that in one family?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied with a casual shrug.  “I guess we’re just lucky.”

And that’s me.  Lucky to have retained the textures of my childhood, the quiet, unpressured days; the grinding powerlessness; the longing for what I couldn’t even name; the humiliations; the soaring joys.

And lucky to have found good use for all I have carried with me from those days!