The Electronic Newsletter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, South Africa
October 2004 - No. 3
- A Note from Your Regional Advisors
- Upcoming Events for the next four months
- Feed back on the SCBWI & IBBY Conferences
A Note from Your Regional Advisors
2004 has been a good year for children’s book people in South Africa. Our two Publishers day held at the beginning of the year and the SCBWI Conference held in September were a roaring success. We had 55 attendees and 21 presenters at the conference. Our International presenters were Kent Brown (editor), Jody Taylor (art director), Carolyn Yoder (editor) from Boyds Mills Press USA; Jean Cristophe Boele van Hensbroek, Editor from Lemniscaat Publishers, Holland. And the cherry on the top was the award winning writer from USA Katherine Paterson’s speech during the SCBWI Dinner held on the Saturday evening. If you were unable to attend, don’t despair, this conference is the beginning of many! Hope to see you at future events, from
For the next Five months
Event: A Halloween Tea Party – a “Show and Tell” Day
Date: Tuesday, November 2nd from 10.00am to 3.00pm
A day where writers and illustrators can meet to show their work to each other
Cost: For SCBWI members R10.00 per person (includes tea & coffee) + bring a plate of delicacies to eat with the coffee and tea
Kindly RSVP to
There will be feedback on the SCBWI & IBBY Conferences.
There will also be a draw for a years membership of the SCBWI !!! Worth 75 USA Dollars!!!!
Our End of the year Party
Date: Wednesday, December 1st from 10.00am to 3.00pm
Will send out details later!
Publishers Day (Date to be confirmed)
A day when writers and illustrators can show their work to publishers
As soon as I have confirmed with the publishers I will send you the list of publishers that will be participating, the programme and guidelines for presenting your work to the publishers.
Next months Bimonthly Open Studio Day (Date to be confirmed) – from 10am to 3pm Marjorie will hold an open day at her house at 153 Beach Road, Gordon’s Bay. Anyone can come to look at books (Marjorie has an extensive children’s book collection) or chat about their work, or just come and have a cup of tea and chat about Children’s books. Please ring 021 856 0432 the day before to say you will be coming.
We are also planning a computer workshop – Will let you know more details once later.
Article written about the SCBWI & IBBY CONFERENCES held in September
These articles are copyrighted and may not be reprinted without prior permission from the writers
MAKING THE MAGIC
A FRESH PERSPECTIVE ON THE FUTURE OF SOUTH AFRICA’S YOUNG READERS
By Julia Smuts Louw Julia Smuts Louw studied English Honours at the University of Cape Town. She is shortly to commence her Masters in creative writing under the award winning author, André P. Brink.
This year, on the first day of the southern hemisphere’s spring, writers, illustrators, editors and publishers from South Africa and beyond descended on the verdant suburb of Pinelands, Cape Town for the first ever South African SCBWI symposium.
The symposium was organized by the indomitable Marjorie van Heerden, writer and illustrator of over 50 books for young children and founder of the South African branch of SCBWI. Freshly returned from a four-year stopover in Greece, whose 2002 SCBWI conference was incidentally also her brainchild, Marjorie has wasted no time in resuming her role as a mover and shaker in the South African children’s book community, as all who attended this event will be quick to testify.
The symposium was by all accounts a roaring success. A festive market-place atmosphere prevailed as over seventy members of the local and international literary scene gathered at the Huis der Nederlanden cultural centre on the 1st and 2nd of September for seminars, workshops and one-on-one review sessions which ran concurrently throughout the two-day event.
The event was opened by Thomas van der Walt, lecturer of Information Science at the University of South Africa and current President of the African Research Society for Children's Literature. Van der Walt presented a sobering picture of the challenges faced by those pursuing a career in children’s literature in today’s South Africa. First and foremost is the challenge of finding a niche in what is unfortunately a very small market. While 85% of the country’s adults possess basic literacy skills, not many have the time or the inclination to read habitually. Of these, still fewer can afford the luxury of regularly purchasing new books for themselves or their children, as a dearth of state support, together with the diminutive readership, has necessitated high retail prices. In addition, South Africa has to deal with the more run-of-the-mill first-world problem that many of those who have the means and the resources to buy and read books, choose not to. For children especially, television is forever the path of least resistance as far as entertainment is concerned. The aspiring South African writer is thus faced with the daunting reality that the two-headed beast of aliteracy and apathy has wiped out the vast majority of her potential public before she has even started.
A further challenge is presented by the fact that South African writers and publishers of children’s books are obliged to take into account the extraordinary diversity of their fledgling public. Providing for the specialised needs of a range of cultures is an expensive undertaking which simply does not dovetail with the demands of big business. As Kent Brown of Boyd’s Mill Press, Pennsylvania, noted in his address, children’s literature is subject to the same forces and pressures that affect other industries, and consequently, as far as most larger publishing houses are concerned, the same values apply: “bigger is better”; “one size fits all”. Printing in one language, for example, makes far better financial sense than printing in a variety of languages. The globalisation of trade and the progressive homogenisation of world culture have resulted in what is essentially a policy of uniformity. And there’s the rub, for in South Africa, we have a multiplicity of cultures, with no fewer than eleven official languages represented between them. Nine of these have never been developed in literature to any appreciable extent. Any given author can thus only hope to find an audience amongst a handful of the country’s children, unless his or her publisher is willing to have the work translated and marketed many times over. Van der Walt revealed the telling fact that, despite the current national obsession with cultural equality and proportional representation, there were more books published in indigenous languages during the apartheid era than have been in the decade since South Africa’s celebrated transition to democracy in 1994. The public and private resources currently dedicated to creating a body of literature that caters for South Africans in all their diversity are sadly deficient. In other words, there is a danger that even a child fortunate enough to have acquired reading skills may fall by the wayside because there is no literature available in his or her first language.
Evidently, a Herculean task lies before those involved in children’s literature in South Africa if they are to lay the foundations for anything approaching a truly national literary tradition that can sustain itself and grow. As Miemie du Plessis of Lapa Publishing put it: “Usually, you just have to persuade people to buy your book. In South Africa, you have to start out by persuading them to buy books at all!” There is some understandable reluctance on the part of writers and illustrators to shoulder the burden of doing the “persuading” themselves, as promotion is traditionally the task of the publisher. Du Plessis’s seminar imparted the message that, given the nature of the market and the amount of groundwork that still needs to be done in this country, it is in the best interest of the creator of the book to take an active part in generating interest- not only in his or her own work, but in reading and literature in general. In short, whether the motives of its members are moral or monetary, cooperation and communication between all levels of the industry is imperative if headway is to be made in the immense task of turning South Africa’s children into bibliophiles. On that score, Thomas van der Walt noted during his address that the event at hand, namely the first South African SCBWI conference, was encouraging evidence that progress was indeed being made towards the formation of precisely such a cohesive body; a united front against the two-headed beast. “In South Africa, we should be conceiving the SCBWI’s role as a network for the exchange of knowledge between writers, illustrators, publishers, editors, and sellers, as it is in the United States,” he advised.
Kent Brown wryly suggested that those attending the symposium were in part hoping to find a way to circumvent these obstacles by discovering the secret formula for a sure-fire winner. “Most, people, instead of writing, attend writer’s conferences,” quipped Brown. “They’re in search of the elusive ‘magic ingredient’. But the truth is you can’t find the magic. You have to make it.”
Whatever mysterious alchemy may govern the magic-making process, a good place to start as a writer is to know what children respond to. And in this, each writer has the incomparable advantage of personal experience. “Inspired writing comes from the heart,” said acclaimed writer and illustrator Niki Daly. “To write for children, you must be able to relive the sensations, smells and feelings of your own childhood.” An important principal that emerged from these discussions was the fact that, no matter how they may differ in terms of cultural framework, language and upbringing, the things that make kids tick are fundamentally the same. “The struggles and emotions of childhood are timeless and universal,” said Brown. He related an enlightening anecdote to the effect that research on the reading tastes of African American children had shown that “children do not like books about ethnic minorities.” As they say in the States, go figure! Children, of course, have little concern for postcolonial polemics. To discover what they do want to read about, counselled Brown, you must ask yourself what it is they yearn for. “They want more independence, more freedom, more power than they have.” In a similar vein, Du Plessis remarked that children are strongly prestige-driven: they desire the respect and admiration of their peers as well as the love of their families. “Children are the ultimate escapists,” she said. “The heroes they connect with are those that succeed in everything they do.” Whatever object or environment these ideals may be embodied in, the basic longings of childhood remain the same, and, as Brown noted, the fact that these experiences are shared by all of us in our first few years of life helps us to understand one another later. Children’s literature can help build those bridges.
There is no easy answer to the challenges faced by South Africa’s children’s literature industry, nor indeed to those faced by South Africa’s children. But the amount of creative energy, talent and enthusiasm that was tangibly present during this event is cause indeed for optimism. An overarching message of the symposium was for all those involved to keep in mind that their’s is a worthy cause. As Kent Brown put it in a final exhortation to his audience: “If your book can make a difference, you have to write it.” While children’s books may be seen to hover on the dividing line between artwork and commodity, their can be no question that they serve a vital function in a child’s life. Not only do they educate and entertain, they provide oxygen to the imagination –in a word, magic- for which there is no substitute.
© Julia louw, 2004.
The SCBWI and IBBY Conferences held in South Africa (September 2004)
By Helen Brain
September saw two prestigious conferences held in Cape Town, South Africa. The first was “Storytime in Africa,” organized by Writer & Illustrator Marjorie van Heerden who also is the co-Regional Advisor of the South African chapter of the SCBWI. The second was the IBBY conference, entitled “Books for Africa.”’
They coincided with South Africa’s celebration of ten years of democracy, which seemed appropriate, as a new political dispensation has had a rejuvenating effect on what was a sad and politicized industry.
Without the scrutiny of our writing by people with political agendas we are free to write what we want to write, and it is hugely energizing. We’re proud of being South African and it is beginning to show in the way we write and illustrate.
The SCBWI Conference was a group of about 55 writers and illustrators, some just starting out, and the rest already established. We were lucky to have Kent Brown, Jody Taylor and Caroline Yoder from Boyds Mills Press, USA and Jean Christophe Boele van Hensbroek, Lemniscaat Publishers, Holland, as guest speakers.
Award winning writers/illustrators Piet Grobler and Niki Daly were among those who facilitated workshops, and a team of specialists reviewed manuscripts and portfolios on a one-to-one basis with the authors and illustrators.
I don’t know if its true all over the world, but in South Africa, children’s book writers and illustrators are a particularly welcoming and warm group, and there was a convivial, almost playful atmosphere.
After two days of workshops and a gala dinner where we enjoyed hearing guest speaker Katherine Paterson, we emerged into the huge arena of a full scale IBBY conference. Our group merged with nearly six hundred, multilingual, multicultural delegates. And our pride as Africans shone. Delegates from across Africa arrived dressed in traditional fabrics. The place exploded into colour and noise. It was like being in a tree full of exotic birds, all singing the same songs about more books for our children.
This conference covered subjects relevant to Africa and the lives of the children of Africa, such as exiles’ journeys, oral traditions, multiculturalism, and the way Africa is depicted in books from other continents. There were story telling workshops, and others teaching techniques like making rag books that could be used in rural schools where children have little if any access to books in their own languages.
For those of us involved with writing and illustrating, the SCBWI conference was a practical guide to furthering our craft. The IBBY conference opened us up to a world that deals with our books after publication. As Marjorie van Heerden says, “At SCBWI we come together to play and build castles in a sandpit, while at IBBY they study and evaluate those castles, and they check that the sand is safe for us to play in.”
© Helen Brain, 2004.
Rights, Contracts, Copyrights
Copyright: The right to be acknowledged as the author or creator of something, be it a book, a painting, a film etc. Copyright can be ceded or sold to third parties, but one should always consider such a step as the final resort when one is confronted with a hopeless personal situation. (See also modern trends in the media regarding the position of employees.)
Moral right: Even if copyright has been sold or ceded to a third party, one retains the right, ad infinitum, to be acknowledged as creator of something.
Intellectual right: Much the same as moral right, but is also used to acknowledge that even though someone has not created something, he/she has given the idea or concept on which the object/creation is based.
The bare minimum you should know:
A publishing contract grants the publisher the right to publish and sell your book.
You should receive a small payment, a royalty, for every copy of your book that is sold.
Exactly what rights are granted to the publisher is open to negotiation.
The publisher has the final decision regarding the book’s actual title and the cover artwork and design.
Some contract terms are more negotiable than others, such as free copies to the author, first serial rights and merchandising rights.
Differentiate between an offer to publish your manuscript, and a contract. If promises are made when the offer comes in, one should make certain that those promises are carried over into the contract.
What is a contract?
A publisher wants to publish your manuscript and needs a legal document that does the following:
Gives the publisher the right to publish and sell your material in an agreed-upon territory;
Outlines the monetary arrangements;
Establishes your right to grant the company those rights;
Spells out the responsibilities of the author and the publisher;
States a length of time for the agreement.
It is rather simple. Some clauses in the contract are negotiable, and the publisher will tell you which ones they are. Never be afraid to ask for something. I’d like to take a closer look at the 15 main aspects/clauses of the standard publishing contract.
1. The Work, the Publisher, the Author:
These are the legal terms that will be used in your agreement for your manuscript/book, the company who will publish your book (party of the first part!) and you (party of the second part).
Take note that the Publisher as a legal entity can in some cases be the holding company of the imprint that will be publishing your book. You may also wish not to be identified as the legal entity the Author, for tax purposes, and will be allowed to assign this to a closed corporation or a trust. In such a case one should see to it that the contract recognizes you as the holder of the copyright.
Some contracts at this point will also acknowledge that the Work is a work of fiction. In cases where an author is commissioned to write a work of nonfiction, the contract will state that the Work is to be “a Work of nonfiction whose subject matter is as follows: …” A length for the manuscript may also be stated.
See introductory remarks.
Beware of contracts that assign all rights to the publisher, or ones that stipulate that the publisher is the copyright holder.
Also be wary of contracts that state that the publisher will register your copyright. ( If the contract stipulates that the Author gives the Publisher the Right to Copyright, this is in order. Such a formulation implies that the Publisher receives the Right to administer the copyright, and ndoes net necessarily receive the copyright itself.) The fact of the matter is that the minute you write something original, it is copyrighted material without you so much as having to fill out a form.
3. Titled / Tentatively titled:
You have thought out a great title for your book. But ….Most contracts give the publisher the right to change the title of your book. Sometimes it is stated that a title will be changed “by mutual agreement”. This is so because publishers commonly have a much better idea of what will sell or appeal to the public. The cover and title normally are marketing decisions waiting to be made.
At this stage of the contract a delivery date for the manuscript might also be stated, if necessary.
4. The Advance:
Author most often have to write without any financial support. In such cases they may want some kind of advance to tide them over until the day the royalty cheques start arriving. An advance is a sum paid out “against all monies accruing or payable to the Author”. The Publisher will recoup the advance from royalties owed to the Author. An advance is not a gift.
Advances usually are payable on various dates stipulated in the contract:
upon the signing of the contract, or
delivery of the manuscript, or
upon acceptance of the manuscript, or
upon publication of the book.
6. Grant of Rights:
This is where the Author grants or assigns the publishing rights to the Publisher. It is normally stated that the Author “grants the Publisher the right to publish and sell” the Work. In addition to the right to sell your book in bookstores and other retail outlets, this clause may also give the Publisher these following rights:
License the Work to book clubs
Sell translation rights to foreign countries
License foreign-language editions of the Work
Produce or license electronic versions or multimedia versions
Produce or license audio book versions
Produce or license hardcover, trade paperback or mass market paperback versions
License serializations in newspapers and magazines
License movie rights
License commercial or merchandising rights
Regulate the granting of rights to institutions that manufacture books for the blind.
The remuneration split for most categories of subsidiary rights is 50/50, but you can negotiate the percentage with your publisher. Be aware that the less money the publisher receives, the less likely they will be to exert great effort to market those rights.
This clause defines exactly what the author will receive from the sale of the book. Royalties are calculated by either of two methods:
As a percentage of the recommended retail price (minus VAT)
Or as a percentage of the publisher’s net receipts – the actual cash the Publisher receives from the trade after discounts and VAT have been deducted.
Most of the big South African publishing houses prefer the second method to compensate for the huge discounts demanded by the trade.
In cases where huge sales are envisaged, the Publisher will consider offering a sliding scale of royalties.
As part of this clause you’ll receive information about the number of free copies of the book the author will receive, an whether the author can buy more copies at an author’s discount.
8. The delivery of your manuscript and corrections:
If a contract is entered into before the delivery of the final manuscript, a date will be stipulated as deadline for the delivery of the manuscript to the Publisher. If the deadline is missed, the contract will also have stipulations about possible ways to deal with it: cancellation of contract, with repayment of advances etc. The clause will also allow for circumstances under which the Publisher can reject the Work as unpublishable. It may also give the Publisher the right to demand specific changes to the manuscript, and define a process by which the Author can respond. If the Publisher still feels the manuscript is unpublishhable, the contract can be terminated.
9. Photographs and illustrations:
The contract will define the Publisher’s expectations regarding illustrations, photographs, maps and charts – as well as who pays for them.
The decision to publish the Work results in the taking of a big risk by the Publisher. If the book is popular, the Publisher might want to publish more books by you. In the option clause the contract will state that the Publisher gets the first option on your next work, the book that you write after the book under contract. This is an exclusive right that is granted. In some cases the contract might state that the next work should be of the same nature as the one under contract.
Some contracts state that if your Publisher bids on your next work (especially in cases where an agent is involved), you cannot sell the next work to another publisher for a lesser sum.
It will also specify the earliest date that the next work can be submitted for consideration.
This clause may also cover competing works – the publisher does not want you to publish a competing book with another publisher.
11. Author’s Representations, Warranties and Indemnity:
In this clause the Author assures the Publisher that the Work is original and that the Author has “sole and exclusive right to make the grant of rights set forth herein…” You also assure the Publisher that the Work is free of slander, libel or invasion of other people’s privacy. If legal action arises from the publication of the Work, this clause allows the Publisher to stand aside and point directly to you. In a sense this clause outlines the legal procedure if a lawsuit arises.
You may not agree with the wording in these clauses; this section of the contract is not up for negotiation.
12. Obligations of the Publisher:
You have promised to deliver a manuscript by a certain date, and in this clause the publisher promises to publish the manuscript by a certain date, or within a specific time-frame. What happens if the manuscript is not published (and for reasons not envisaged by the contract) should also be specified by the contract: how the Author can terminate the contract and keep the advance.
The contract will indicate when you can expect payment of royalties – normally twice a year. This clause must also state what happens in the case of overpayment or if audits are requested by the author.
14. Overstock, Out of Print, Reversion of Rights:
What happens when your book goes out of print? When do the rights revert to the Author? When can books be sold below cost price to remainder dealers? This clause should address all these issues.
15. Assignment and Bankruptcy:
Once you have signed a contract, your heirs will be legally bound by it as well. When you die, your Publisher still has the rights to the book. This clause also allows the publisher to assign the rights to your book to a new company if your publisher sells the business.
Should your publisher go bankrupt, it must be remembered that the book has become an asset. The author may now buy back the rights, or the rights may be sold along with the publisher’s other assets. The publisher may also be allowed to sell remaining stock without having to pay royalties.
Other matters regarding the contract
I’d like to answer some frequently asked questions about contracts.
What is negotiable?
The following points can be negotiated:
Who pays for the index
Who pays for illustrations, photos etc
What sales territory the publisher has the rights to
Various subsidiary rights issues
Commercial and dramatic rights
How many free copies the Author receives
Author’s expense budget
High discount/reduced royalty clauses
Reversion of rights.
C.T.B. Thursday, September 2, 2004
Talk given by Katherine Paterson at the SCBWI Conference Dinner on 4th Sept. 2004.
SCBWI South Africa, September 4, 2004
THE STORY OF MY LIVES
By Katherine Paterson
The title I had chosen for my remarks tonight was “The Story of My Lives.”
I took a look at it earlier this week and wondered if I should chose an alternative that sounded less like a personality disorder. So I do have an alternate title. I got this one from a card that I’ve had for many years. The card has a three-panel illustration. At the top lies a zonked-out whale with X’s where his eyes should be. Below is the same whale with his eyes popped out in amazement as a voice coming out of its mouth declares: “Incredible as it seems . . .” In panel three the sentence is completed by a person who is climbing out of the whale’s mouth:
“ . . . my life is based on a true story.”
Well, incredible as it seems, my life is based on a true story. This is the way it goes:
Once upon a time there was a little girl who whose teacher told her to write a poem. She wrote her poem and it appeared in the school newspaper. This is the poem she wrote:
Pat Pat Pat
There is the rat
Where is the cat?
Pat Pat Pat
Beside her poem in the Shanghai American School newspaper was a letter from the second grade teacher. The letter said: “The second grader’s work is not up to our usual standards this week. We were too busy working on our circus.”
So her first published work appeared alongside her first critical review. Needless to say, it never dawned on her (or anyone else for that matter) that she would ever become a writer.
She did write occasionally after that. She wrote plays that she and her friends acted out at recess time on the playground and, when it was rainy, even in the classroom. She wrote a poem in high school that got into a national anthology. It was a really bad poem, beginning “I am youth, standing at the crossroads of eternity. Which path shall I take?” Fortunately, she can’t remember the rest of the poem except that it ended exactly as it began with the hapless youth still standing at the eternal crossroads. When she was in college she wrote a lot of term papers, and when she lived in Japan she wrote a lot of letters.
No, no, no. Not those lives! That’s not the story people at a writing conference are interested in. They want to know the story of her writing life. How did she actually become a writer? She certainly showed very little early promise. You have to admit there’s something of a leap between Pat, Pat, Pat and a Hans Christian Andersen medal.
Okay. Let’s start all over again.
Once upon a time there was a woman who wanted to write. No, delete that first sentence. Once upon a time there was a Maryland housewife with first two, then three, then four children under the age of six who was constantly composing in her head and furiously writing down the bits whenever she had a moment, a woman who wanted desperately to publish. She became a celebrated, award-winning commercially successful writer of books for children and young people and lived happily ever after. The end.
Wait a minute! That’s no story.
What do you mean, ‘that’s not story’? You have ‘once upon a time’ and ‘happily ever after.’ What more could anyone want?
A middle! A story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
But that’s the boring bit. Delete boring, insert depressing, bit. Besides it’s a story most writers know all too well. The slogging away at manuscripts she has no hope will ever see the light of day– the wistful attendance at writers’ conferences– the seven dismal years of self-addressed envelopes jammed into the mail slot– the coffee stained manuscripts that have to be painfully re-typed (no computer printouts in those days) before they can be submitted to yet another seemingly heartless editor– the drawers full of printed rejection slips– the wondering if it is worth the heartache, not to mention the postage. She doesn’t think about the time– her time, evidently, has no value.
Through the years, she tries everything– stories, poems, articles, fillers– nothing sells except one story and one poem. The tiny magazines that buy them immediately fold, the second one before the poem is even published.
She is obviously not meant to be a published writer. She doubts that she has any talent at all. In all other ways, she is a fortunate woman. She has a good husband and four happy, healthy children. Isn’t that enough? Why should she so desperately want to see something she has written in print? After all, writing is a harmless hobby. Maybe even therapeutic. Thanks to her scribbling, she hasn’t ended up a mad housewife–just a slightly depressed one. Why can’t she be content?
But if she’d been content in the middle, the happily-ever-after would never have happened.
But I don’t want to talk about how she got published. I don’t know how she got published. She’s not the kind of person who gets published. Far too eccentric a writer to be marketable. No wonder she had seven years of rejection slips. Those editors weren’t so dumb.
What you’ve just heard is a conversation I had with myself a few years back when I was asked to address a writers’ conference on the topic: “Writing for the Market.” I had no idea in the world how to write for the market, so I called my editor of over thirty years, Virginia Buckley and asked for her help in writing such a speech.
“What are you planning to say?” she asked nervously. “Well, that’s just it,” I said. “I don’t know anything about the market.” I heard an audible sigh of relief at the other end of the line. “So,” I said, “you’re the expert. What do you think I should say?”
“Janet [her then assistant] and I are right now reading through the slush pile, and I said to her yesterday, I just wish everything weren’t so market driven. I think people should write what they need to write.”
“May I quote you on that?” I asked.
“No, wait a minute. I have to phrase this carefully,” she said. “Writers have to know what’s being published today and what’s selling. They need to go not only to libraries but to bookstores to find out. Now having said that, I believe that people should write what they need to write.”
“Do you think new writers have a chance today? I mean the kind like me who needed to write a historical novel for young people set in 12th century Japan?”
“It’s harder,” she admitted, “though it’s always been hard. But today there are fewer editors willing to read slush pile submissions. Though I can’t understand it. How are they going to find good first novels if they don’t read the slush pile?”
No wonder my story turns out well. Does anyone in the world have such a terrific editor?
But back to the middle of the story. The question I suppose I need to address is how I got from there to here– How the frustrated, practically unpublished housewife became, if not exactly a household name, at least a respected and well paid writer.
Let me say first of all, that no one has been more surprised by my success than I have. Indeed, initially, I was somewhat alarmed by it. I was raised in a cultural environment in which women were allowed to dabble, but it wasn’t quite ladylike to be noticed. I am alos aware that when other people conjure up an image of a successful writer, my face and figure are not what leap immediately to mind. I’m forever being left stranded at airports. The people who come to meet the speaker simply don’t recognize me. A man who was supposed to pick me up at the airport in Seattle once had seen numerous pictures of me. I think he’d even watched me on a video. He was looking for me. He admitted later that he’d seen me, but it didn’t occur to him that the chubby, grey-haired lady in the brown raincoat was the author he’d gone to meet.
When people are first introduced to me, I watch them make a mental adjustment. I don’t look the way they think I ought to, and I certainly don’t talk they way they expected. I’m not sure if it’s the North Carolina accent or the ordinariness of expression. “You’re not like I expected you to be,” they’ll say. “What did you expect?” “I don’t know, they say. “That I’d seem smarter?” “No, no!” they say, half laughing, half embarrassed.
But I suspect that’s probably it. Here’s this woman, not nearly so clever as I, they’re thinking, and she’s supposed to be this well-known writer. Then often, surprise moves to questioning–or to be more specific, to what is sometimes known as the “trick” question. The person is watching me, trying to figure out what I have that she doesn’t, and it simply doesn’t add up. So she asks the question. It comes in several guises, but most writers I know have figured out the question behind the various guises, which is–What is your trick?
The person who has just met me is saying to herself: I obviously am more clever and more able than you and I am certainly willing to work as hard as you do, so there must be some trick, some secret that you know that I don’t. So be generous, tell me your trick, and I will be so rich and famous that within a couple of years you’ll be bragging that you met me at this party.
It doesn’t do to say that there is no trick. The person will just think you’re being selfish. Various writers have tried to fashion satisfactory answers. Actually, I’ve always liked Barbara Tuchman’s answer best. When asked the secret of her enormous success, Miss Tuchman replied: “Write on only one side of the index card.”
Now see! You didn’t know that did you? And I have this problem. Remembering all too well the days when index cards were an expense I could hardly afford, I simply cannot resist writing on the back of the card. I don’t know about you, but I darkly suspect that my inability to keep from turning the card over to finish the entry is the single flaw that will keep me from ever being as rich or famous as Barbara Tuchman was.
That’s the problem with advice. Even when it’s given, there’s no guarantee. It reminds me of the mother’s day card I got from one of my sons. “Mom,” it said, “all the advice you gave me growing up is still as clear in my mind as the day you gave it. And to this day, I never run with a stray dog in my mouth and I always look both ways before accepting candy from strangers.”
So what’s the middle of the story–the trick–the secret–the advice? It boils down to what Virginia said to me on the phone. I did read what was being written in the field of children’s and young adult books, but when I sat down to write, I wrote what I needed to write, what I wanted to write, what, as it turned out, was what I could write.
There is a wonderful story about the writer Conrad Aiken who, during his lifetime, received awards and critical respect, but very little in the way of actual money. During the 1920's and ‘30's he was a struggling writer with a house full of children to support. He was publishing, but only in tony little literary magazines who were too high class to insult their contributors by offering them filthy lucre for their work. But what Aiken needed at the time was not a complimentary copy of the journal, but cold, hard cash.
He decided to change his ways. Forget “symphonic poems and meditative prose.” Forget esthetic quality. Forget literature. Write something that will put groceries on the table. Aiken was a brilliant man and went about his assignment scientifically. Taking money from the almost non-existent family budget, he went out and bought copies of all the magazines that paid real money to writers for their stories. There were a lot more of them in those days than there are today. The Saturday Evening Post, Liberty, Colliers–He studied and analyzed all the stories printed in them until he figured out the key. Then he sat down at his typewriter and deliberately pounded out a Saturday Evening Post story, one that the editors would not be able to resist and which, not incidentally, would feed his family for months to come.
Well, of course, the Post rejected his perfect story, as did all the other big paying magazines. “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” was eventually published in an obscure, elitist journal and has been repeatedly anthologized in the years since Aiken’s death as an example of a great literary short story.
The moral of this cautionary tale, in case there is one person out there who, like me, is a little slow catching on to these things, is that you can study the market to a fare-thee-well and under the most pressing of circumstances, but in the end, you write what you can.
When children ask me where I get my ideas, I turn the question back on them. Ideas are everywhere– a dime a dozen. But before I write a book I look at the idea, or rather the complex of ideas I am proposing to turn into a story, and I ask myself two questions: Is it worth all the trees? (Someone told me once how many thousands of trees must give their lives to print a modest edition of a book. I was so appalled that I forgot the actual number, but I still have to ask myself if this book idea could conceivably be worth the sacrifice of a forest.) And the second question which gets more relevant with every passing year: Is it exciting enough, important enough for me to live with it for the year, two years, maybe three years of my ever shortening life which it will take in the writing?
You wonder why I ever write. So do I. And yet, I do, because like you, somehow I must. It’s what we do. But I only write books that I truly need to write–that matter deeply to me. I can’t waste trees or life on anything less.
I began to write my first novel back in those grim days when nothing I wrote was getting published. A lady in the church where my husband was pastor felt sorry for me. There I was, stuck at home with first two, then three, then four little children. She took me on as a kind of good work. How about attending a writing class through the county adult education program? she asked, knowing that I was trying to write without success.
It sounded great– Mom’s night out. We started in a general writing course. Then for the next couple of years we took the course on writing for children. I was writing something– a story or a poem– every week, and, of course, publishing nothing, when it occurred to me that if I could write a story a week, I might be able to write a chapter a week. And at the end of the year, I would have a book.
I wanted to write a story set in Japan, because I had lived for four years in Japan back when I was a competent single woman, and I was a little bit homesick, both for Japan and that feeling of competency. Besides, if I wrote a story set back in the past, I would have an excuse to read Japanese history, something I loved doing. I don’t think I even knew that if I did that I would be committing historical fiction. I wasn’t thinking about genre, I was thinking about story. I’m sure I didn’t realize that a book for young people set in 12th century Japan would be, for all practical purposes, totally unmarketable.
But a novel has to have more than fascinating setting and well-paced plot. It has to have an emotional core. It has to be written out of passion. And the heart of this novel, set in 12th century Japan, came from an unexpected source. It came from my five-year-old daughter.
Lin was born in Hong Kong in the fall of 1962. When she was about three weeks old, she was found on a city sidewalk by a policeman and taken to an orphanage in the New Territories where she lived for more than two years before she came to be our daughter. Her initial adjustment was horrendous, and again when we moved from New Jersey to Maryland in 1966, a lot of it came unglued and had to be redone. But, by 1968, when she was five, life had settled down pretty well for her. Still, there were times when for no reason we could discern, the bright, happy little daughter she had become would disappear. In her place would be a silent waif. It was as though the child we knew had simply pulled down a curtain that we could not reach through.
This might go on for several days at a time, and it scared me to death. Where had she gone? What was she experiencing behind that blank stare? And how on earth could I reach her?
The curtain had been down for several days. I had tried everything– cajoling, begging, holding her. Nothing got through. One evening I was in the kitchen making supper when she came in. Without a word she climbed up on a high kitchen stool and sat there, her tiny body present, but the rest of her completely closed away. I tried to chat with her in a normal tone of voice. There was no answer, no indication that she even heard. The harder I tried, the more tense I became.
Finally, I did what any good mother would do under the circumstances. I lost my temper and screamed. “Lin,” I yelled, “how can I help you if you won’t tell me what’s the matter?”
She jerked to life, her eyes wide open. “Why did that woman give me away?”
Then it all began to pour out. Why had she been given away? We’d never told her she was a foundling. It seemed too harsh– just that her mother had not been able to keep her and wanted her to have a home. I repeated this, adding that I was sure her mother hadn’t wanted to give her away and wouldn’t have if there had been any possibility that she could take care of her. Was her mother alive? Was she all right? I couldn’t answer her questions, but she let me try to comfort and assure here. She never again, even in adolescence, pulled down the curtain in just that way.
She is a mother now herself– a wonderful, loving, funny mother. I watched her giving her own babies all the care that she herself never had as an infant, but that somehow she knew how to give. She is a wonder and I cannot tell you how I admire her.
But in the context of this speech what she gave me that day was not only herself, but the emotional heart of the story I wanted to write. What must it be like, I wondered, to have a parent somewhere whom you do not know?
I look at this book, The Sign of the Chrysanthemum, is its title, and it’s no marvel to me now that I had difficulty finding a publisher. It is set in the midst of the civil strife of 12th century Japan. The central character is a thieving bastard who is searching for the father he never knew. The girl he cares about ends up in a brothel. I didn’t put her there because I wanted to scandalize my readers, but because a beautiful thirteen-year-old girl in 12th century Japan who had no one to protect her would, most likely, end up in a brothel, and the penniless teen-aged boy who loved her would be powerless to save her.
Now at some point I must have realized that I hadn’t seen a lot of books for young readers along this line, but when I wrote The Sign of the Chrysanthemum I wasn’t, to be honest, worrying about readers. I was writing a story I needed and wanted to write, as honestly and a well as I knew how.
For those of you who have wondered about the difference between novels for the young and adult novels, the adult best-seller at about the same time my book was published– a best-seller which, by the way was breaking every sales record since Gone with the Wind, was the sentimental, moralistic tale of an over-achieving seagull.
Then how on earth did my book ever see the light of day? Granted, it almost didn’t. It made the rounds of various publishers for more than two years. And then a miracle happened. It was taken out of the seventh or eighth publisher’s slush pile by a young woman just out of college who read it and loved it. She took it to her boss, the senior editor, who had just come back from a visit to Japan and who was and is a woman of vision in the field of children’s books. She has always dared to publish books that she feels will open up unknown worlds for children. I’m sure she had no illusions that the book would sell well. She hoped, of course, that it would sell respectably, but she wanted young readers to have a chance at the book, and she wanted the writer of it to have the chance to write more books.
The book has never sold well in hard back, but in paperback it is still selling respectably after more than thirty years. This is particularly satisfying to me, because young readers buy paperbacks, and it means that the book is reaching the people I think I am writing for.
Well, that’s pretty much the middle of the story. Once Ann Beneduce at Crowell decided to buy my first novel, she turned me over to Virginia Buckley who has continued to edit all my novels, though Crowell was long ago gobbled up by a series of larger companies and no longer exists except in fond memory. Virginia eventually headed her own imprint at Penguin for 17 years and in that reshuffle landed at Clarion Books a few years ago.
I do not know about publishing in South Africa, but I can’t believe it is much easier here to publish a first novel than it is in the United States. There are not many publishing houses left with the vision of an Ann Beneduce or Virginia Buckley, a Kent Brown or a John Christophe. On the whole, fewer chances are being taken. As I indicated earlier, more and more money and trees seem to be devoted to books with less and less substance.
But most of you haven’t gathered this week because you’re on a search for fame and riches, but because you long to write something that will matter to you and to other people. So take Virginia’s sage advice– acquaint yourself with what is being published and what is selling– and then go home and write what you truly need to write, and which, not incidentally, may be the only thing you can write.
So maybe there is a trick after all. It’s not found in the file cards or the word processing program, you choose, the before work rituals, or the time of day or night when you sit down to work. Maybe it’s the one suggested by Bernard Malamud who once said: “Write your heart out.”
© Katherine Paterson, 2004. Used by permission.
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