Tag Archives: Newbery Honor

Tied Up with a Bow

boy“A writer only begins a book.
A reader finishes it.”
−Samuel Johnson

I hear the question regarding On My Honor more than with any of my other books: “But what happens next?”

I have, in fact, been asked that so many times about On My Honor that I’ve begun recommending an assignment: You tell me what happens next. Write Chapter 13. (The book has twelve chapters.)

For those who might not know the story, a quick plot summary . . . Joel asks his father for permission to go on an outing with his friend Tony, an outing Joel doesn’t want to be part of but doesn’t have the courage to refuse. Joel’s father, not understanding what is at stake, disappoints Joel by giving permission, and the two boys go. They end up swimming in a forbidden river where Tony, the more daring of the two, drowns. Joel, frightened and guilty and furious with his father for not protecting him from this terrible situation, returns home and, at first, doesn’t tell anyone what has happened. When he finally tells the truth, he also accuses his father, expecting some terrible punishment that will bring the world down around him and somehow make things “right.” What he gets is his father’s unwavering presence, a reconciliation that gives the story its only possible resolution.

Many teachers have passed my assignment for a Chapter 13 on to their classes, and sometimes they send their students’ new endings to me. I read them with a sense of discovery. So this is what happens! Because I don’t have a clue myself. I have never spent five minutes pursuing the question, no matter how often others pose it. The story, for me, ends with Joel in his father’s arms, with Joel and his father finding a way to be together in the face of the tragedy neither of them can repair. That is the resolution my heart longs for and what happens beyond that seems incidental. What happens beyond that moment is life, not story.

I knew, of course, that much in the story remained “unfinished,” but that was exactly the way I wanted it to be. If I had answered all the questions I have heard from young readers over the years, On My Honor would have become a different story. And in a curious way it would have belonged less to my readers and more to me. By not answering those questions, I leave it to them to carry Joel away with them. If all had been resolved, tied up neatly with a bow, they would have found it much easier to put Joel down and forget him.

Readers come away from On My Honor wanting, sometimes quite desperately, to know what will happen next. They want to attend Tony’s funeral. They want to return to school with Joel in the fall to see how the boys’ friends will receive him. They want to follow him into his life to see how he will manage without Tony. All of that could form the basis for another story, of course. It just doesn’t happen to be a story that calls to me.

One piece of On My Honor, however, remains unresolved in a way that I didn’t intend. If I could write the novel again, I would have Tony’s body discovered. In the first draft, I did have a chapter in which the body was brought back, but Joel’s reaction to seeing his friend was so strong that I dropped the chapter. I thought it might steal power from the final scene between father and son. The problem with having done that is that some young readers finish the book still expecting Tony to be discovered, alive and well. They probably have never read a story before in which a main character dies, especially someone their own age, and so they are distracted by hope and miss the story’s true resolution.

If I had realized that might happen, I would have answered that question more firmly. I could easily have had the body discovered off stage so that the death would have been certain without creating a distractingly too-strong moment.

But the rest? I am convinced it is the unanswered questions that give On My Honor its resonance.

I believe it is the unanswered questions that give most stories their resonance.

And that’s why I rarely tie up my stories with a bow.

The Deepest Gift

praiseMy working life is represented by 96 books sitting on my shelf, each one bearing my name. An accomplishment I do not hold lightly. These books have been written and published over the course of 40 years, and that bears mentioning, too. I have worked long and steadily.

I have made a living for 25 years doing work that I love. Note the discrepancy between publishing for 40 and making a living by that publishing for 25. It took me 15 years before I ever once, combining income from writing, teaching, lecturing, and speaking in schools, earned enough money to survive on my own. And keeping that living going after it finally reached that level has required a lot of cobbling, a lot of taking on varied writing projects (thus the 96 books), a lot of teaching, a lot of climbing onto airplanes, a lot of repeating myself in front of a sea of wiggly kids. But I did it. And I’m so grateful I could that there is hardly room left over for pride in the accomplishment of it.

Looking back I see intense hard work. Good work. Always good. And every bit as clearly I see serendipity. Winning a Newbery Honor Award in 1987 for On My Honor was a major example of serendipity. Winning any award requires serendipity. While it can be presumed that a book that garners an important award is pretty good, there will always be a dozen more books—perhaps 100—of equal value that year, books that didn’t happen to catch the award-givers’ eyes. So serendipity lay in the calling out of my book from the pack and it certainly lay in the timing of the call. The award announcement came just as I cast aside the safety net of a 28-year marriage.

With the award, I woke to find myself the flavor of the month. Doors were opened where I hadn’t even known there were doors. And I walked through them . . . walked and walked.

I never forgot serendipity, though, or assumed any special deserving. A fellow author traveling the speaking circuit once said to me, “If you begin to think these invitations/awards are important, just ask your hosts who they invited/awarded last year and watch them struggle to remember!”

All this is real and true, and all of it is history. The advantage of being, by anyone’s measure, an old woman is that so much falls away. So much of the need for attention. So much of the desire for my work to be seen as better than. . . . So much of the feeling that 96 books—or one book—matters very much.

Early in my career I came to understand something important: the number of books published, the number of awards garnered matters very little. What matters is the day-by-day process of sitting down to write, of honing my skill, of mining my truth.

If I didn’t always recognize that reality in those first moments of being on display, it came home emphatically in the years that followed. No correlation exists between the amount of time, the amount of love, I invest in a book and its success out there in the world. Books I have created in a couple of hours on a playful afternoon support me, year after year. Books I have labored over with passion and deep feeling, books that represent my highest effort and best work, can turn into smoke.

I have come to know that rewarding myself in the moment of doing by simply paying attention, enjoying, letting the words flow through me is the key to a good writing life, to a good life.

How grateful I am to be an old woman who rises every day to work, to good work.

That, I can promise you, my friends, matters.



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


serendipityLast week I talked about what it takes to build a career as a writer.

I discussed the importance of setting a writing schedule and keeping it.

I said that it is essential to learn to revise and to get the kind of input that tells you what kinds of revisions will be useful.

And then I marched straight on into the deepest secret of every successful writer . . . serendipity.

No writing career gets very far without it.

My serendipity came about in 1987 when my novel of the year before, On My Honor, won a Newbery Honor award. That happened nearly fifteen years after I moved my writing from a guilty hobby to a fulltime job, and eleven years after Shelter from the Wind, my first novel, was published. During those fifteen years I worked hard and constantly. In fact, the main complaint I heard from my children when they were growing up was that I was always writing. But despite that hard work and despite publishing six novels prior to On My Honor, I never once, in all that time, came close to earning enough money to live on.

Receiving an award of that stature does more than change one’s immediate cash flow. It opens doors. It puts a stamp of approval on a career for years to come. And that’s what I mean by serendipity. There had to have been dozens of other books out that year that were equally deserving of such notice, but mine happened to catch the right attention at the right time and I was able to move forward into my career with a new authority.

Coincidentally, that was also the moment in my life for a much less serendipitous though necessary event. I left my marriage of twenty-eight years. But I left with the deep knowledge that my newly successful writing career was one of the gifts from the man who had for so long provided a roof for my typewriters and for me and our children and various foster children and exchange students and cats and dogs and hamsters. And I will always be grateful for the generosity with which he made my career possible.

Not everyone has the privilege of being provided for, however, while trying to get established. And not everyone will have a serendipitous moment of being lifted out of the pack. What do you do then?

Just keep writing because you love to write and keep slogging at the unglamorously hard work. One doesn’t exclude the other. They can live side by side.

What further tricks I know for keeping a career alive I’ll talk about next week.