Windward into Revision

Posted September 23rd, 2017 by Candice

In August 2016, I traveled to Vinalhaven Island off the coast of Maine to participate in a week-long festival honoring former resident Margaret Wise Brown.  I gave an evening talk, and, most fun of all, led a workshop in which attendees penned poetry and even a picture book in Margaret’s lyrical style.  Back home again, I wrote about my island experience and my personal connection to Margaret in a Knock Knock essay published last August.

I’d been working on a picture book biography of MWB for thirteen years, researching, writing, revising, traveling, submitting, getting rejected, revising, revising, revising.  I’d gone through every stage in the writing process: full steam ahead, tacking to keep my sails filled, sitting in dead calm, and finally, a busted rudder.

At what point do we give up on a manuscript?  How many rejections do we collect before we consider the book a failure?

Planning the trip to Maine, I knew Margaret and I were so over.  I still loved and admired her, but I needed to put this project in drydock.  I’d told her story from several points of view—Margaret herself, her dog, her potted plant, and even her books.  None of them worked.  Yet as I was packing T-shirts and sunscreen, I decided to revise one more time.

On Vinalhaven, I ate lobster and ice cream, read, stared at the water, and scribbled in a notebook.  I’d deliberately left research materials at home, bringing only the last version of my manuscript and Leonard Marcus’s Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon.  But a new “way in” eluded me.  While touring Margaret’s summer home, Only House, I watched a sailboat arrow down the bay.  Margaret wrote that way, forward-moving, effortless as a feather.  Why couldn’t I?

One morning at a read-aloud event, an elderly man recounted a surprising anecdote about Margaret.  I laughed and said to myself, “Only Margaret!”  Suddenly I was windward again.

I spent September writing the new version of my book, then sent it off to my agent who declared it “Gorgeous!”  She was the only one who felt that way, it seemed.  Rejections poured in.  Some editors asked me to revise heavily.  One editor, who’d seen a version of the manuscript years before, advised me to return to the style she’d rejected in 2008!

The calendar changed.  Fourteen years on a single project.  Did I waste all that time?  No.  My journey with Margaret has been priceless.  I learned more about an incredibly influential writer . . . and about myself.

One afternoon this past May, my agent called.  She asked if I was sitting down.  I was deep in work and barely paying attention when she said, “We have an offer on Margaret.”  What?!? I had to lie down.  Kathleen Merz of Eerdmans Books for Young Readers wanted to acquire my manuscript, “Only Margaret: A Story about Margaret Wise Brown.”

At first, the news felt like finally being able to stop hitting myself in the head with a hammer.  Then it seemed like a dream.  Did I really get that call?

Yep.

At what point do we give up on a project?  When do we quit revising?  Those are questions only we can answer.  I’m glad I tried once more.  I can’t wait to work with my editor on “Only Margaret,” to have fresh wind at my back, and expert direction.

Photos: top – taken from Margaret’s Only House; middle, bottom – from a scrapbook I made in 2005.

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A Working Writer’s Career, Part Two

Posted September 18th, 2017 by Candice

In Part One, I sold my first children’s book before the age of 30 (a thing for me), well within my five-year do-or-die deadline.  This was supposed to be published right after Part One, but I wrote a post in between and forgot to see if this had been published in Bookology!

After several months, I realized New York didn’t recognize I was the Next Big Thing.  I’d actually have to write my second book and sell it.  Timing was on my side.  It was the early 80s, when paperbacks filled mall bookstore racks.  Series books with new titles each month, priced for kids, were the Next Big Thing.  My second and third and many more books were original paperbacks.  Multiple publishers (though still not Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard) kept me busy.

I branched out to nonfiction, hardcover fiction, biography, and picture books.  For years I worked on contract projects during the week and spent weekends creating new books to submit myself.  At one point, I had six publishers.  I thought it would last forever: the work, the money, the opportunities.

Then things began to change.  Conglomerates like Time-Warner and Gannett took over smaller publishing houses, herding them together like sheep.  My beloved Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard folded.  Schools, the backbone of children’s book publishing, staggered from the Whole Language Movement to Back to Basics to Common Core.  Catsup was considered a vegetable in school lunches.  Budgets were cut.

Then came Harry Potter with its hordes of fans and subsequent movies and merchandising, a tsunami that flattened mid-list writers like me who’d been writing stories for average readers.  Before I could stand up, Twilight and The Hunger Games sucked the market into YA.  The digital age nearly drowned us all and the Big Five publishing houses required agented submissions.  Children’s writers were definitely not in Kansas anymore.

In July, I turned 65.  I’ve been writing children’s books for 35 years.  I’m still afloat, but my career isn’t what I envisioned back in the 80s and 90s when I wrote between four and six books a year, plus my own projects.  Back then I looked forward to being in my sixties, leisurely penning one novel a year, and living off royalties from my previous books.  Pfffft!

How have I stayed alive?  By being flexible.  I’ve moved from middle-grade fiction to picture books to nonfiction to easy readers to biographies . . . published everything from board books to YA.  Skipping around has made me difficult to categorize, a detriment at times.  But I relished doing different books, learning new things, taking on new challenges.  I believe flexibility has kept me fresh in an ever-changing field.  (Also, as my husband says, I don’t take “No” for an answer.)

2017 brought another milestone.  The Big Green Pocketbook has been in print continuously for 25 years, attaining classic status.  This simple little picture book did not blow out of the water when it first came out in 1993, yet has sold steadily, without fanfare.  No one had any notion it would do so well.

Despite publishers’ efforts today to tout the Next Big Thing, no one can predict what book will catch on.  They can give a book a huge push with tours and other promotion, but there’s no guarantee extra publicity will pay off.  In my mind, I don’t picture mobs of kids jostling in line for a hot book.  I see one child sitting on a sofa with a book on her lap, quietly entering the space between writer and reader.

It’s that image, rather than the illusion of big bucks and fame, that draws me to my desk day after day, year after year.  I simply do the work I’m meant to do.  And copy machines everywhere are grateful.

As of this week, I’ve sold 139 books.  People always gawk when they ask how many books I’ve had published (and are in the pipeline), but if you amortize that number over 35 years, it’s not that astonishing.  I’m a working writer, maybe a bit more prolific than some, but main thing is that I love what I do (I can’t do anything else at this point) and I’m not stopping any time soon. 

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How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Posted September 2nd, 2017 by Candice

September.  Yellow tickseed has overtaken chicory in roadside ditches.  Goldfinches are fixing to switch to olive plumage.  To me, it’s seemed like September since mid-July, when Walmart swapped beach towels and grill tools for back-to-school notebooks and gel pens.

School supplies remind me of waiting at the bus stop the day after Labor Day, dressed in long sleeves and wide-wale corduroy, gripping my brand-new plaid bookbag.  It was probably ninety-three degrees when the bus dropped me off in the afternoon, and Mama was in the kitchen canning tomatoes, but the season had shifted.  I’d have my first homework assignment: write three paragraphs on how I spent my summer vacation.

My paper was the same every year.  I did nothing.  I went nowhere.  We had a huge garden and raised hogs.  You didn’t traipse off and leave crops and livestock.  Actually, I spent my summers reading books, writing stories, and dreaming up stunts that got myself and my weak-minded cousins in trouble.

But I never wrote about that.  Or about going to the county fair  (summer highlight).  Or sipping grape Kool-Aid while reading the Classic comic version of “The Tinderbox” under my uncle’s weeping willow.  Or rolling down the hill just to get silly-dizzy and grass-itchy.

I never wrote about the time I visited my Maryland cousins, who lived close enough to a golf course to sell cold drinks pulled in a wagon to thirsty golfers.  I had the bright idea to collect stray golf balls and sell them.  Unfortunately, I didn’t know a golf ball stuck in a sand trap from one sitting on the green.  Players were not happy.

Somehow, I didn’t think those kid-stuff stories were worth telling.  Now I’m old and grumpy and if anyone asks me if I had a nice summer, I want to say, “What’s the deal about summer?  Does anyone ever ask if you had a nice fall?  Or how was your winter?”  No, we’re only interested in summer, a three-month break from school and (some) work, a time of being outside.

You’d never guess it’s summer in our neighborhood.  There is not a child to be seen.  They don’t ride bikes.  They don’t play in their yards.  They don’t dream up schemes that will land them in hot water.  Where are all those children of summer?  Holed up in the house, glued to screens.  We stayed outside from morning till after supper, reluctantly coming in to have our heads checked for ticks, to wash our feet, then go to bed.  Most of us would have to be chloroformed to stay indoors.

People don’t realize, but by the 1920s, after seventy years of industrialism, railroads, and smokestacks, experts worried about lack of sunlight on urban populations.  In 1929, the National Carbide Company published a “Sunshine Map” that showed hours of possible sunlight in fifty cities.  Reports made dire observations, such as “There was little hope of robust light in Detroit.”

According to the traditional Navaho calendar, the yellow of summer will soon meet the white of winter, and will turn its back on us.  Until then, we have September’s golden days to enjoy and inspire us.  Helen Bevington noted in her 1961 book, When Found, Make a Verse of, that “Longfellow liked the month of September.  Schiller needed the smell of rotten apples about him to make a poem.”

As for me, I need new school supplies and a new resolution to work one day a week in the library of nearby University of Mary Washington.  Yesterday I strode purposefully across the sun-drenched campus wearing my brand-new backpack, among robust students who make me feel less old and grumpy, and wrote a found poem.

In case anyone asks, I’m planning on having a great fall.

“Where Is the Sun Today?”

Take an “s” walk.

See how many things you can find that begin with an “s.”

Stars.

The stars are always up in the sky.

Very dim light from stars is lost.

Sun.

The sun is really a shining star.

The sun is a big, big place!

Summer.

The nicest thing about summer is how it gets people outdoors.

If you are confused about daylight,

select an upper window with a clear view.

You will be rewarded with a picture.

Note: Found poems use words from books or other printed materials.  My sources were More Research Ideas for Young Scientists (1961) and Compton’s Precyclopedia, Vol. 14 (1977).

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