Tag Archives: writer

A Life Raft

Credit: arcturusangel | morguefile.com

The artist, if true to his or her vocation, recovers the past and explains the present. The artist is the true chronicler of who we were and where we came from. Culture, in times of distress, is not a luxury but a life raft.

Chris Hedges

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.]

Despair for the World

Credit: dronagirl | morguefile.com

Credit: dronagirl | morguefile.com

When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives might be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

-Wendell Berry

Who Am I?

Marion with Chester

Marion with Chester one of her Grandsons

A woman,

a lover of this precious, crumbling world,

my own fleshly world crumbling,

precious, too.


An infant born to a mother who adored infants,

who needed an infant


a too-soon awkward child;

an adolescent struggling toward the salvation of competence;

a wife, certain she knew how she should be,

how he should be,

how everyone should be;

a mother, a perfect mother, a failed mother;

a lesbian starving for food she had never tasted;

a grandmother,

a grandmother,

a grandmother.

All tucked neatly, like nesting dolls,

inside an old woman.

An old woman standing close by the end of her eighth decade.


Who am I?

A lone woman,

a fleck of dust in an expanding universe,

a fleck of consciousness



A gatherer of words.

Words laid out, one by one by one,

seeking . . .

not the eternity of the page.

Paper crumbles, too,

like worlds.

Like my fleshly crumbling world.

I gather a bouquet words,

my past into words,

hold it in this moment,

only this moment

of loss,





I gather words to say



only this.


I am here.

I am.


[A piece from my memoir in progress, currently titled  All the Love in this Trembling World:  A Memoir in Verse]