Tag Archives: Dinosaur Thunder

Cobbling Together an Income

dollar-signsBeing 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.

Did That Really Happen?

The question readers often ask, adults or kids, is the same. Did that really happen? And to you? And sometimes, of course, it has . . . in some way, at some time. Most of my stories, though, come not from the substance of my life but from fragments and bits: a place I once lived, a promise once broken, a cat that once rode a dog’s back all the way out of our yard.

I have been writing lately about researching to extend my experience, going dog-sledding in order to write a dog-sledding scene, reading books written by soldiers in Vietnam so I can include letters home from that war.

Some novels, though, are born, not from my immediate experience or from research of any kind, but simply from the world I know. Little Dog, Lost is such a story.


The main street of the small town in Illinois where I grew up, which I used as the basis for Erthly in Little Dog, Lost.

The place that forms the center of Little Dog, Lost, a town named Erthly, is very familiar to me. Erthly is based on the small town in north-central Illinois where I grew up. Erthly isn’t that same town in any factual way. I have added what did not exist and taken away some of what did. A mansion stands at the center of Erthly. There was no such mansion in my home town. I’ve left out the taverns that wafted their fried-food and beer smells onto the sidewalk as I walked home from school. (Most stories for young children don’t seem to need taverns.) I’ve left out the dusty cement mill that was so much a part of my life. My father worked at the mill and we lived in the mill housing, tucked neatly at the base of the mill. The mill with its smokestack and its throaty whistles and huffing, clanging trains has appeared in other of my novels, but it wasn’t needed in this one.

The names of the streets I grew up with do have a way of finding themselves in Erthly, however. And more important, the town comes onto the page with some of the same feel as the town I remember: folks who mostly know one another and have opinions about what they know; freedom, even for the very young, and a safe, encompassing world.


Brannon, the subject of the picture book Dinosaur Thunder, at age 9, being consumed by a dinosaur in a museum on our trip to the Black Hills.

A picture book, Dinosaur Thunder, is coming out this spring, too, and that is drawn from my life in a very different way. It began with a summer week spent with my daughter’s and son’s families in two adjoining cabins in Wisconsin. One evening, I was upstairs in the loft of one of the cabins with my son’s three little boys reading bedtime stories when a thunder storm came banging through. Brannon, who was three, grew frightened, but he accepted no comfort from me, an occasional grandma who lived too far away to count. He wanted neither cuddling nor soothing explanations. Instead, he went to the corner of the loft and stood there, very close, facing into the adjoining walls until the storm had roared on by.

What a strange thing to do! I thought, and I carried the incident home with me when the week was over. Eventually, What a strange thing to do! turned into a story about a little boy, who happened to be named Brannon, who was afraid of thunder. (It was the first–and the last–time I ever used one of my grandchildren’s names in a story.)

Dinosaur ThunderIn Dinosaur Thunder, the family attempt all kinds of comfort, but Brannon accepts none of it. His response with each new explanation about why he doesn’t need to be afraid is to find a new place to hide until . . . But I’ll let that stand until you read the story yourself.

(The interesting add on to this story is that I placed Dinosaur Thunder with an editor about twelve years ago and, for an assortment of reasons, it has been delayed coming out until now, which means it’s arriving in time to humiliate ever atom of fifteen-year-old Brannon’s soul. He’s a bright, thoughtful young man, though. I assume he will forgive me.)

Did that really happen? Yes, three-year-old Brannon, upstairs in a strange cabin, was once afraid of thunder. Did various members of the family try to reassure him as the family does in my story? Nope. All that came from my imagination. And that’s the way stories are born, from fragments and bits of a writer’s life, from books we’ve read, from experiences we’ve sought in order to write about them. Mostly, though, they rise out of a place I haven’t yet talked about, out of our deepest longing.

Longing is the place where writers and readers meet, and I’ll talk more about that next week.



Celebrate!How many times have I said it to my students and to other developing writers? When you’re publishing a book, celebrate every step of the way, because if you don’t celebrate the small moments, you rarely arrive at one that feels big enough to justify loud rejoicing.

(Okay. If you win a Newbery or a National Book Award you get a party. Short of that, one moment in the life of your much-loved book tends to blend right into the next.)

The process of writing a book and getting it published is a long and arduous one, but it has many defining moments along the way.

So . . . when you finish the umpteenth revision of your manuscript and are ready, however warily, to show it to the world, celebrate!

When an agent agrees to represent you, celebrate!

When a publisher offers to take your manuscript, celebrate!

When, months later, the contract is actually in your hands, celebrate!

When, more months later, the check for the first part of the advance arrives in the mail, celebrate! Use a bit of that money on a fancy dinner or a romantic weekend with your spouse or . . . well, you know what’s special for you.

When you send your editor the very last draft in response to the very last jots and tittles to be revised, celebrate!

When you receive a copy of the ARC—Advanced Reader Copy—of your book or get the F&G’s—folded and gathered sheets—of a picture book with all its glorious art in place, celebrate!

When you read your first review–we’ll hope it’s a glowing one—celebrate!

When you finally hold the finished book in your hands, celebrate . . . celebrate . . . celebrate!

If you don’t do it, who will?

As always, though, advice is easy to give. And advice givers don’t always live by their own wisdom.

During a recent Sunday after church, a friend and I were discussing the health crisis I’ve just been through—now behind me—and wanting to turn to a more cheerful topic, I announced that I have two books coming out May 1st, Little Dog, Lost, my first novel in verse, and Dinosaur Thunder, a long-awaited pictured book.

“How wonderful!” she said. “Let me give you a book party.”

I was startled. I haven’t had a book party since . . . well, since 1976, the year Shelter from the Wind, my very first novel, came out.

“Oh,” I stammered, “when you have more than eighty books out there a book party begins to seem a bit–”

She interrupted. “No,” she said. “Let me give you a book party.”

“Let me think about it,” I said. And I went home and did just that.

When I told my partner about my friend’s generous offer, she said, “What a good idea!” Then she added, playing with words in a way that would delight any writer, “We need to do it quick while you’re still quick.”

So while I’m still alive and can enjoy it–a state of affairs I expect to last for a good long time, by the way, but nonetheless, why wait?–we’re going to have a party for two books I’ve been looking forward to, two books I’m proud of, two books worth celebrating: Dinosaur Thunder and Little Dog, Lost.

It’s taken me far too long to take my own good advice.

But it is good advice, and I intend to enjoy every minute of that good party!