Serendipity began my career as a writer for children and young-adults.
My first novel was published in 1976, and in 1976 the young-adult field wanted what was being called “the new realism in children’s literature.” What can it be called but serendipity that new realism was exactly what I needed to write?
(I’ll pause to clarify that what was called “young adult” in 1976 would now be called middle grade. Our stories were aimed at 11 to 13-year-olds, because it was 11 to 13-year-olds reading our books, one of those self-perpetuating systems. Only later, when publishers began to dare to put out books about older characters and more complex issues, did the readership become truly young adult.)
I knew nothing about “the new realism” when I began writing with the dream of publication. In fact, I knew little about the field I was trying to enter except that I had read a handful of Newbery medal books and fallen in love with their fierce truth-telling.
Truth-telling was the passion that brought me to write for youth. I had been persistently lied to as a child. It was presumably innocuous lying, the same lying that most other children of my generation were subjected to, but my mother was, I suspect, better at it than most. The lying was intended to protect us, but actually protected adults from their own discomfort about difficult topics. And once I parsed the silences, the outright lies, I felt betrayed.
So when I sat down for the first time to write for young readers, I was ready to whip back the curtain of protective silence that had so infuriated me. I began with a story about a girl in a foster home, sexually abused in the name of Jesus.
That story was in my heart because I had a foster child at the time, one of several who shared my home at different times, and I had come to be aware of—and angry about—the sexual abuse such children too often encountered. It was in my heart, also, because I happened to be a clergy wife, and I was equally angry about the way religion could be used to support and hide abuse.
If I had written Foster Child ten years earlier, it probably would have gone unpublished. As it was, even though the field was opening up, I may have stumbled onto the only editor in town—James Cross Giblin at Clarion Books—with the courage to take on such a loaded topic. (Foster Child was published as my second novel, because by the time I found Jim, I had another less problematic manuscript, Shelter from the Wind, completed, and so he began with that one.)
So . . . serendipity launched my career. Editors in the 1970’s happened to want to publish what I needed to write. If my heart had instead been invested in a story about a boy attending a school for magicians, I would have had a much harder time getting published and a much harder time getting noticed if I’d been published at all.
My point? Sometimes it helps to know that the field goes through cycles and that what you’re doing may simply stand outside the current cycle.
Before the unlikely success of the Harry Potter stories, fantasy was poison to most editors. After Harry, they were starving for it.
I had a student many years ago who wrote adult horror novels. They were well written, well plotted, could make your hair stand up. But at that time editors simply weren’t buying horror. I could do little but tell her how good her work was . . . and commiserate with her for her inability to sell it. (I lost contact with her after that class and have always wondered if she managed to catch the publishing merry-go-round on a later revolution.)
My advice? Write what you need to write. It’s probably the only thing you can write well anyway. But if you want to publish, be aware of trends. And learn patience!
And trust to serendipity.