Tag Archives: career

To Agent or Not to Agent, That is the Question

Credit: RobbinsSky | morguefile.com

Credit: RobbinsSky | morguefile.com

After writing my first novel for young people, I sought out a literary agent.  I knew nothing about the field, and although in those days I could have submitted on my own, I would have been flying blind.  So I found an agent and signed up with her.

She was well known, personable, responsive, someone who had been in the agenting business a long time.  In fact, everyone I talked to who knew New York publishing said that they thought she had been there forever.  After only one or two tries, she placed my first novel and before the contract had come through, my second with a publisher I remained with happily for many years.  Nonetheless, eventually I decided to go on my own.

I decided to leave the agent behind for two reasons.  First, my editor said to me one day, “Marion, your agent has never done anything for you.”  Armed with that information, I checked with another author on the same list and discovered that she, without an agent, had an escalation clause that my agent had never asked for.

Second, and even more important to me, after a few novels for young people, I decided to write an adult novel.  When I’d finished a solid draft, my agent sent it out.  An editor at a major house declared interest and suggested revisions.  I embarked upon the work with enthusiasm.  But when I showed the editor the opening third of my new manuscript, she said several things, none of them positive.  Her culminating statement was, “Frankly I liked the first version better.”

I was young and still very unsure of the value of my work.  Besides, this was new territory.  Who said I could write an adult novel anyway?  I gave up.  I told my agent I was setting the manuscript aside, and she accepted my decision without comment.  Much later, though, she made a comment to a friend of mine that trickled back to me: “It’s a shame Marion abandoned that novel.  It would have been an important book.”

I felt betrayed!  Furious!  If she had said that to me, I would have stayed with the novel.  No question.  But by the time her words reached me, I felt too removed from the work to resurrect it.  That’s when I decided I didn’t need an agent.

Flash forward about twenty-five years.  I was doing fine on my own.  I’d published a whole lot of books with an array of publishers.  I wasn’t getting big advances, but I’m not a fan of big advances.  If you get a big advance and the book doesn’t earn out, you’re a loser.  You have difficulty placing your next book.  If your book does well, you’ll get the money anyway, nicely spread out which serves both living and tax purposes.

My first clue that I might not always be making the best choices for myself came after I wrote a novella I especially loved and gave it to the wrong publisher.  I placed The Very Little Princess with the publisher I did for reasons that seemed reasonable at the time.  I had a contract to fill there.  I liked working with the editor.  And it was the most convenient door for me to walk through.  This story, however, while aimed at young readers wasn’t like my other novellas.  It wasn’t like any other of the “chapter books” on the publisher’s list.  It was a serious literary effort, its topic, mortality.  And while this particular imprint does fine novels for early readers, it isn’t known for serious, literary work.

Maybe I wouldn’t have recognized the misfit on my own, but once the book was published people let me know.  I got angry letters from librarians and teachers who were trying to fit The Very Little Princess into a group reading experience of fun princess stories.  My story was anything but fun.  The title, however, and the very pink cover promised otherwise.  And all I could do was empathize with what must have seemed to my readers a bait and switch.

It was the first time I realized that the fact that a door is open to me doesn’t mean that’s the door I should walk through.  I realized, too, that were other doors out there completely unknown to me.  I needed someone who knew the range of publishing houses, someone who knew the tastes of different editors, someone who could find exactly the right home for each of my manuscripts.

And so I took a deep breath and, late in my career, returned to working with an agent.

How did I choose that agent?  I’ll have more to say about that in my next blog.

Wealthy, Connected or Supported?

money bagA discussion has been going on the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators site as to whether it’s necessary these days to be wealthy, connected or supported to launch a career writing children’s books.

The discussion has made me smile the way limited-to-now visions always make us old folks smile. The truth is, being subsidized in one way or another has always been necessary. Well, necessary is too strong a word, but it has always helped a whole lot.

Forty plus years ago when I came into the field, the majority of us writing or trying to write children’s books were married women. I would guess that’s still true. The difference is that in the 50’s and 60’s being married usually meant leaving employment to care for husband, home and children. I taught during the early years of my marriage, supporting my husband through his undergraduate degree and then through seminary. After that I settled in to being a mommy and, not without significant demands, a clergy wife.

When my youngest child entered first grade, I decided instead of writing in the cracks of time to treat my writing as my work. And in addition to setting a schedule and doing it, I also stepped away from many of the traditional roles clergy wives filled at the time. It helped that we moved to a new community soon after I started writing fulltime, one where the congregation had no idea that I could run a church school or even cook. And when I left the marriage years later, I could thank the husband I left behind for the established career I took with me.

So yes, the majority of children’s writers when I came into the field were “kept” women. And if that’s less true now that is mostly because even married women these days rarely have the privilege of staying home to pursue a career that may never pay.

As one of the founding faculty and the first Faculty Chair for the Vermont College Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program, I watched our students, many of whom went through the program on borrowed money, emerge into a post-graduate world. A few—a very few—found fabulous contracts and overwhelming success. Some graduated and years later still haven’t published. Many others have found occasional success, a book published here or there, but probably haven’t earned enough to cancel out their student loans. A fair number have also found adjunct teaching positions because of their MFA, but few enter such a program with teaching as their primary dream.

A low-residency program such as VCFA has an advantage over any ivory tower. Students do the work of the program while continuing to manage the rest of their lives … nine to five jobs, parenthood, community obligations, etc., etc. Exactly as working writers must do every day.

And that’s the reality. Few writers, male or female, can “give up the day job.” Even after they are publishing. They couldn’t when I began writing, and they can’t today. I am fortunate enough to be able to support myself with this good work, but to do so I have spent years cobbling together multiple sources of income: part-time teaching and lecturing in addition to the writing. And even that combination provided income sufficient to sustain me only after fifteen years of writing fulltime plus a Newbery Honor award.

Beyond that, I have taken on many projects simply because they were offered and I knew I could do them. That’s why I have almost one hundred books out there. The cobbling applies even to my writing itself.

The news about writers’ income is not good these days. The publishing industry is in profound transition, and no one knows what we are transitioning into. In addition, more books are published every day, which means my book, your book may hardly be noticed … even if it is really, really fine.

So … give up writing and get a job pumping gas? (Whoops! Those don’t exist any longer either.) No. Just be realistic. If you came into writing for the money, you are probably never going to see enough of it to justify the long, long days you’ll be putting in. If you came into writing because you love doing it, because you don’t seem to have any choice but to do it … well, then there’s your reward.

And the fact that you can be paid something for the privilege of this profound play is a gift!

To Tell the Truth

Santa ClausLast week I wrote about my beginnings as a children’s writer, what had brought me to the hard truths that often form the core of my stories. But I wrote about only one level of that beginning, my discovery that it was possible to write hard truths, even for a young audience, and to be published. That discovery excited and motivated me and sent me sailing into my first novel.

What I didn’t talk about was why. And there is a very distinct why.

I grew up at a time when children were routinely lied to. And my mother, I might add, was better at lying than most. Her lies weren’t meant to be harmful. She would, I am certain, have been shocked if anyone had suggested she was lying. Rather these mistruths were meant to “protect” us children. By the time I was grown, however, I realized that what we had been protected from was any truth that might create discomfort for the adult having to speak it. And that, probably more than any other single factor, formed the basis for my career as a children’s writer.

I started off with one clear intention … to speak the truth, to always speak the truth, even when that truth was painful. Especially when that truth was painful, because those were the truths I’d been deprived of when I was a child.

For better or for worse, my own children were not so deprived. My daughter did once tell me that I’d done a terrible thing in giving an honest answer to her three-year-old brother’s question about Santa Claus. Peter had asked whether Santa had really tiptoed into his room and put those things in his stocking or whether I had done it. My answering him honestly, she said, was the worst thing I had ever done as a parent. Peter, being two years older, had, of course, shared this information with her as soon as she could understand it, so she never had a chance to play the Santa game. (I figure if that was truly the worst thing I ever did—which I doubt—she got off pretty lightly.)

But the “truth” door I passed through when I answered my son’s question is the same one I use to enter my stories. In the infamous Santa debunking, I responded to a direct question. I wouldn’t have chosen to spoil the Christmas magic for a three-year-old. But I am incapable of lying in answer to a direct question from anybody, especially from a child, and I’m incapable of writing stories that deceive or wriggle around hard truths.

Honesty, for me, is holy. That’s because it wasn’t holy enough to my mother. Here’s an example: As a child, when I asked whether my family doctor didn’t used to have a nurse in his office who was also his wife, my mother said, “No.” The fact was that they had divorced. But my mother’s answer meant that the woman I remembered quite clearly had never existed! Divorce was unconscionable in my mother’s world, and I understand she was protecting me—and herself—against the knowledge that such terrible things could happen. But I was left bewildered and confused, mistrusting my own memory, and eventually when I learned the truth … furious.

That, of course, is not the only example I could give of my mother’s lies, and she wasn’t the only source of the lies that I was subjected to as a child. Nor am I the only child ever lied to. The practice was ubiquitous in my parents’ generation, much of the lying involving a simple and powerful withholding of information.

I’m not sure why I responded as strongly as I did, why I became such a determined truth teller when probably most others of my generation passed through similar experiences with a shrug. Perhaps it is, as I said, because my mother’s lies were a bit more outrageous than most. Or maybe because there is something at my core that I can only describe as sincere. Sincerity is what I’m good at, also sometimes its companion, naiveté. And both require truth telling.

So my stories take on hard topics, and they present them in an honest and straight-forward way. It’s a strength of mine as a writer, at least it’s a strength if the truth is what you want from stories.

Not everyone does.

The Trough of the Wave

Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Anne Morrow Lindbergh

We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid that it will never return. We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity… Intermittency—an impossible lesson for human beings to learn. How can one learn to live through the ebb-tides of one’s existence? How can one learn to take the trough of the wave?… Perhaps this is the most important thing: simply the memory that each cycle of the tide is valid; each cycle of the wave is valid…. One must accept the security of ebb and flow, of intermittency.

                                             (Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1906 – 2001)

Recently I encountered another writer who lives in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area as I do, someone I haven’t seen for a number of years, and as we talked she mentioned something curious. She said she had been in an audience sometime in the past when I was speaking and that I had I announced I was out of ideas. “It happens,” she told me I said. “I don’t expect to produce more books.”

I don’t have a clue how long ago that was, how many books ago. I know only that the time I spoke those words wasn’t the end of anything. The fact is, I have forgotten the moment and the public statement I made. Equally I have forgotten the trough of the particular wave I was speaking out of. If I was going to express such a conviction publicly, I’m glad I spoke it instead of publishing it. At least this way most of the people who heard me have long forgotten what I said, so I haven’t had to come up with embarrassing explanations. I find myself, nonetheless, rummaging for those explanations, mostly for myself.

How long ago was this? Did I have so little self-knowledge as not to realize that ideas come and go, that sometimes a field—even the field of the brain—must lie fallow, waiting for seeds? What else was going on in my life that I was ready with such bland assurance to announce the end of all my dreams? I have been through times of wrenching transition and loss, but my writing is the one piece that has always held. That, however, is a long-term perspective. I know my writing has held because it fills my days despite the fact that I have lived in that trough from time to time, waiting for the rise of the next wave, uncertain it would ever come.

Those troughs catch me less frequently now after more than forty years of the steady work of writing. One might think I would be more apt to run out of ideas in my age, in my greater distance from the young I write for. (And a confession, I do find myself drawn more strongly these days to an adult audience, hence these blogs, hence the memoir I’m currently immersed in.) But I don’t seem to have gone fallow. Perhaps it’s that my days are no longer encumbered with the responsibility of family or students, giving my imagination a more steady fecundity if not a wilder one. Perhaps it’s simply that I’m more consciously working against a mortal clock and as a consequence am less apt to let myself get distracted.

And perhaps it’s that I’ve learned not to get caught into one single way of seeing, one single style, one single audience. In any case, I know that the troughs, when I find myself in them, are less deep and hold me for a shorter time.

It seems to be one of the blessings of age that I don’t expect to find myself any time soon making another speech about my career being over.



SOME Return on the Investment

money treeLast week, I proposed that being published is not necessarily the be-all and end-all of every effort at writing, that most people engage in the other arts without expectation of being paid for whatever they create. And why shouldn’t writing be the same? I also pointed out that a drive to publish may, in fact, divert especially developing writers from their best efforts.

A reader responded this way:

This is a tough one for me, I have to say. Writing and kidlit are my passion. Yes, I would want to be involved with it even if I didn’t want to be published. For me, though, it is my only true option as far as something I can pursue as a vocation … so getting published (though a long shot, especially as a financial resource) is something I don’t just want, it’s something I need. Sure, I love to write … but all the years AND money I’ve spent in the effort to get published simply pushes me further into debt… . I need SOME return on the investment, so, although I do believe it’s the journey that matters, sometimes the goal has to be achieved. … This writing life is definitely not an easy one in this way.

I’m with her, with all of you who would say something similar. And I’m very aware that the argument I make comes too easily from one who is publishing, has been publishing, for many years. But I haven’t forgotten. This writing life is definitely not an easy one. And the difficulty of it is compounded when you are spending much of your time and resources on writing and have not yet published and need to publish to survive financially.

On My HonorMy writing career has been good to me in that way, though it took a long time to develop. I spent the first fifteen years writing full-time before I ever once earned enough to live on in even a modest way. The balance was finally changed only by the serendipity of having On My Honor win a Newbery Honor Award. And I do mean serendipity. There is so much luck involved in any award. There must have been scores of other books out there in 1987 that were equally deserving, but they, for whatever reason, didn’t catch the eye of the committee. I have always watched for the new opportunity, have supplemented my income with part-time teaching and lecturing, and have worked hard and consistently, but still I know that much of my financial success, such as it is, is due to happenstance as much as to my efforts. Not an encouraging message, I’m afraid, but an honest one.

Killing Miss KittyAnd a further admission, with the exception of On My Honor, my books that bring in the most income are often not my best work. They are ones that happen to capture some market niche or to be combined with the right popular artist or to be picked up by mass retailers, all simply luck. Truth be told, sometimes the books I’ve been most passionate about—Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins being the most glaring example—don’t do particularly well in the market. Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins, in fact, was a colossal failure. When it was emerging it got a lot of buzz, an unusual number of books went out even before the publication date, and when folks got a look at the challenging contents, those books returned to the publisher in a flood.

So … am I saying if you’re hoping to make a career out of writing, to make it your work, it’s time to give up? Not at all. But I am serving warning. I suppose “Don’t give up the day job” is as succinct a way to put it as any.

Yet I will return to the point of my last week’s blog. Despite the vagaries of an unpredictable market, despite the fact that commercial and even cynical sometimes comes out on top, the shortest road to success for most of us remains the road to our own hearts. When we write what we uniquely care about, we offer the world something no one else can give.

And then, whether our work sells well or poorly or not at all, we will have fed our own souls.  And that matters!

P.S. Another reader responded to this topic and sent me this link to a blog which many of you might be interested in.  Here it is:

Marion, I understand this one all too well and just wrote about it for Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo Writing Challenge. I’m sending the link because some of your readers might not know about her blog and will find true support here. — Karen Henry Clark