Tag Archives: children’s literature

Beginnings

It’s the time of year to think about beginnings.  And endings.

We on this globe—at least those who live some distance from the unchanging belt around the middle—live in a world of constant beginnings and endings.  The snow blesses then gives way to flowers.  The leaves unfurl then tumble into dust.  The sun rises then withdraws its bounty.

Credit: Koan | morguefile.com

The essence of our Earth is change, a world constantly remaking itself in earthquake and volcano, in fire and flood, in life evolved and life eradicated.  Even the seeming constant stars die, and planets are born in their fiery deaths.  In the midst of this birthing and dying of everything we know, you and I enter, breathe for a brief patch, and are gone.

And while we are breathing we keep starting over.  And over.  And over.

There was a time when I thought my life was meant to be a straight line toward some distinct and thoroughly desirable goal.  What goal I didn’t know, but I was certain I would arrive there.  Otherwise, what was the point?

Today I look back across nearly eight decades and find a different truth.    My life has been—still is—crammed with discovery, with dreams, with joy more sweet than anything I’d ever been told I deserved.  It has also been littered with missteps, mischance, misperceptions, misunderstandings, mischoices.  Perhaps that dichotomy shapes every life, but certainly it shapes of mine.

To my own credit I can say that I have learned along the way.  Not everything.  Perhaps not even enough.  But the learning goes on, even in age.

Now, already deep into a century I found unimaginable when I was a child, I stand at the threshold of another New Year starting over once more.  Not just nodding to an artificially declared holiday but truly starting over.  So much in my life is new, is being done over, tried again.

New work.  Work I have never dared attempt before.  Hard work, even harrowing sometimes, but good, so good.  Will it find a place in the world out there?  I have no way of knowing, but it calls and I tiptoe after.

New understanding.  So much I thought I knew seems unimportant from the vantage point of age.  So much I understood has been proven wrong.  Or if it isn’t wrong, it has moved on to become something I can no longer fathom.  What to do in the face of my ignorance?  The only answer seems to be declare my incompetence and open myself to discovery.

New peace.  Not the kind of peace from which the chaos of the world doesn’t matter, but a struggling peace, one that seeks openness before the intractable, quiet in the midst of noise, caring against a world of indifference.

And love.  A new love.  Sweetest of all, this new love.

What have I learned as I start over once more after so many other startings?  One thing that I can name.

I eschew regret.

My mistakes have formed me as deeply—perhaps even more deeply—than my gifts.  And here I come carrying it all, mistakes and gifts together, into another day.  Another precious day.

What can I possibly do but rejoice?

Credit: alexfrance | morguefile.com

The Secrets of Our Hearts

heart lock

Credit: Jacky | morguefile.com

In my last blog I talked about knowing ourselves, about using that knowledge as the basis of all we choose to write, even nonfiction.  I talked about knowing what we love, because that’s where all writing starts, with what we love, what gives us energy, what gives us hope.

But when it comes to writing fiction, we need to reach beyond what we consciously love.  We need to draw from the hidden parts of ourselves, the secrets of our hearts.
The first novel I ever wrote was called Foster Child.  Looking back now I see it as a well-meaning, overloaded, somewhat clumsy attempt to deal with important topics.  (Both religious and sexual abuse.)  It was, however, written with heart, the kind of heart that captured attention when it appeared in the world.  It also broke taboos so powerful in 1977 that they didn’t even need to be spoken, which, no doubt, contributed even more to the attention it received.

The topics came to me naturally.  As a clergy wife then, I had strong feelings about the proper and improper uses religion can be put to.  I had also fostered several children and had learned that foster children too often endure sexual abuse in the homes that rescue them.  I had strong feelings about that, too.  Riding on the energy of those feelings, I wrote my first novel.

7_29FosterChildInterestingly, though, it didn’t occur to me until years later to consider why I was so passionate about those abused foster children, passionate enough to spend months framing imagined experience into a story that I knew might be too controversial to ever be published.

The truth was, my passion came from a much deeper place than my surface knowledge of the abuse suffered by children in foster care.  It came from my own experience.  I had grown up in an intact family.  I had been constantly and routinely protected, as middle-class girls routinely were in the 40’s and 50’s.  Nonetheless, I had been sexually abused, my abuser my trusted godfather and family physician.

When I pounded out that first novel, I hadn’t forgotten that experience.  The memory has never gone underground.  But strange as it seems, I never thought about it as I wrote.  Not once.  Not consciously anyway.  Rather I thought about and felt passionate about abused foster children.  I transferred my own powerlessness, my impotent rage to my character.

I suspect that’s the way knowing informs stories for most writers.  We work not so much from conscious knowledge as from a magnetized core in our psyches, one that is at least partially hidden to us. Stories fly to that core like iron filings to a magnet.

In those stories we mine our own ferocity, our own passion, our own knowing.  And that knowing brings our characters to life, creates the illusion—sometimes even for us—that they live quite separately from us.  But whatever skins we dress them in, they are us.

Often they are the us we are struggling to know.

How might Foster Child have been different if I had been aware as I was writing that I was telling my own story?  I suspect I never would have made my way to the end.  I would have felt too vulnerable, too exposed.  My attempt at writing a first novel probably would have died, frozen by self-awareness.

In recent years I have begun from time to time to shed the protective scrim of fiction, to tell my own story in a straightforward way.  Does it make for a better story that way?  I’m not sure I can answer that.

I do know, though, that the garments of story have made it possible to spin my small personal experience into a much larger story, a varied and repeating one, and that’s good for a career.

Maybe it’s good for the stories, too.

A Hand to Hold

 

Credit: Carlson | morguefile.com

Credit: Carlson | morguefile.com

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.

A Numbers Thing

Credit: almogaver | morguefile.com

Credit: almogaver | morguefile.com

My publishing career began in 1976, forty years ago, and the very roundness of that number—and the fact that I was to be speaking at LoonSong, a retreat for writers in the glorious wilderness of northern Minnesota—has prompted me to take a look back.  So drawing from information gathered for that lecture, I’d like to pause to examine some numbers, not my usual territory.LoonSong facility

In 1976, my first novel, Shelter from the Wind, was published along with 2,209 other books meant for children and young adults.  (Or what was being called young adult in that time, then meaning books for eleven to thirteen-year-olds.)

In 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the total number of children’s and YA books published was 15,032.  That breaks down, now that young adult is truly young adult and more legitimately its own publishing category, to 12,988 children’s books and 4,338 YA.

(I have K.T. Horning of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in Madison, Wisconsin, to thank for locating those statistics for me.  The 1976 numbers come from Bowker Annual of the Library and Book Trade, 23rd edition, and the second from Library and Book Trade Almanac, 61st edition, same publication, new name. )

Even if we eliminate all of today’s YA books as a category that didn’t quite exist in 1976, those numbers represent nearly a six-fold increase over the numbers published forty years ago.  And that doesn’t count all the self-published books indistinguishable from traditionally published books on sites such as Amazon.com.  Nor, of course, does it consider the thousands and thousands of books available in publishers’ backlists.

All seeking buyers.

What do these facts mean for children’s and young-adult writers?

First, the bright side.  Despite the dark clouds that have been hanging over publishing in recent years, that means nearly six times as many books are being published today than were being published forty years ago.  Six times as many occasions when an editor said, “Yes.”  That’s good news!

And the downside?  Once published, how much more difficult it is today to get our books—even our very best books—noticed.  The manuscript we labored over with such love has to compete with those 15,031 others for shelf space in book stores, in libraries, in schools, for attention on the Internet.

And again, add in the self-published books, lots of self-published books, not just the occasional vanity press offerings we used to see, and then add in that deep back list, too.  That’s our competition for the book-buyer’s dollar.  No wonder books—excellent books—are published every day and then disappear with barely a whimper.

Has the juvenile population increased in these same years?  Do we need six times as many books?  Yes, it has.  In 1975, according to Pew Research (Sharon McDonald searched out these numbers for me), the U.S. population fifteen and under totaled just over 55 million.  In 2015 it was just over 63 million.  An increase to be certain, but nowhere near six-fold.

And all those extra books are competing for the attention of kids with electronic devices in their hands.

What do we do then to keep our own books from being published and then disappearing?  Well, we have the Internet.  That gives us opportunities, unimaginable forty years ago, to broadcast our own good news.  The problem, of course, is that everyone else has the Internet, too, and rising to the top of that load of information becomes more difficult every day.  But at least the Internet is a resource we can learn and use without a great deal of cost.  That is a blessing, though a blessing that can feel like a curse for those of us who would rather spend our time writing than learning new technology.  A blessing nonetheless.

Another blessing.  In the last forty years I have seen children’s books rise significantly in stature.  It’s something I can feel rather than quantify.  But there is a quantifiable reason why we are no longer the step-children of the industry.  Children’s books, the whole big gathering of children’s books and a few record-busting best sellers, are holding up the bottom line for many publishers.  Even the big guys.  Which, of course, is another number thing, making our books—and us—serious business.  And serious business gets respect.

So . . . too many books and too few buyers?  Yes.  But increased opportunities to get our books out there.  And an industry less inclined to relegate us to the “cute” corner.

I’m okay with those numbers.

Forty Years in Children’s Publishing

Credit: jdurham | morguefile.com

Credit: jdurham | morguefile.com

Forty years!  That’s how long it’s been since the publication of my first children’s book, a novel titled Shelter from the Wind.  The very roundness of the number prompts to take a look back.  What has happened to our industry since 1976?shelter from the wind

Lots, of course.  Far more than I have been privy to from my solitary writer’s desk.  But there is one thing in particular I can name:

When I began my career, selling a book was very much like stepping into marriage with someone you had never met.  There had been a phone call maybe.  An editorial letter certainly.  But you were committed for life without having a clue about how much the two of you might like one another!

It might even be more realistic to say that when your book was purchased, you were purchased along with it.  Your newly discovered editor owned you.

Now, there were good things about being owned.  That meant an editor didn’t just buy your book.  He invested in your career.  And if your next manuscript turned out to be a royal mess, he would probably work with you until you got it into shape.

Sometimes editors would even buy first novels that weren’t quite there.  Because they saw a spark, and they wanted the books they presumed would follow.  That could work for author and publisher alike.

On the bad side, however, as your career trundled on, if your editor really didn’t like something you showed him and didn’t want to work with it, you weren’t quite free to take it to another house.  I say not “quite free” because usually there was nothing in writing to circumscribe your freedom.  But if you did run off to another publishing house, and if that house was so indiscrete as to publish you, there was a name for you.  Whore.  (Remember, ethics are always defined by those in power.)

For more than fifteen years, every book I wrote passed through the hands of the same editor.  I was pretty content with this arrangement.  He and I worked well together, and he did truly develop my work as a novelist.  However, as much as I loved writing those novels, I wanted to explore other kinds of work.  So from time to time I submitted a picture-book manuscript to this, my only, editor.  His answer every time was the same.  “Marion, you are not a picture-book writer.”

Now, I don’t want to suggest that he was being mean or small minded.  Looking back, I can see that he could, very legitimately, have said, “Marion, this is not a picture book.”  Because it wasn’t.  I hadn’t yet figured out how to write a picture book.  The difference is that he was interested in developing me as a novelist, but he had no interest in supporting my learning curve with any other genre.

Which would have been fine if the unwritten, mostly unspoken rules hadn’t made the idea that I might approach another editor a betrayal of the first.

I didn’t begin to publish picture books and thus to have an opportunity to learn what the market wanted—and what it did not—until those rigid walls finally fell.  And when they did, they tumbled rather spectacularly.  Changes occurred in the industry.  Editors began playing musical chairs and taking their authors with them when they landed at another house.  And soon no one could enforce those old rules, not even with a glancing allusion to loyalty.

And so I discovered, to my delight, that I am a picture-book writer . . . only not for that first editor.

At the forty-year mark in my career, I have published with nearly a dozen different publishers, and that doesn’t count different imprints under the same publisher.

And the reality?  No one editor is committed to developing my career.  Each one cares primarily—probably exclusively—about the particular book that stands between us right now.  And that has to be enough.  We writers are free agents in charge of our own choices, and editors are free as well.  This new way of working is an improvement in some ways.  Those picture books again!  But it also comes with real losses.

When I find myself with questions that involve my career as a whole, I have no place to turn . . . unless I am working with a wise and truly committed agent, one who is interested in my dreams, not just my current book.

That’s why, after managing my own contracts, my own access to editors, my own career for a long, long time, I have, in recent years turned to an agent.

Which is what I’m going to talk about next.  Why agents?

Credit: Stokes

Credit: Stokes | Elbow Lake

[This blog was drawn from a talk I gave in September at LoonSong, a writers’ retreat in the wilderness of northern Minnesota.]