Rx for Writers

Transcripts

"How to Write Forever and with Joy" with Jane Yolen

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Jane: is Jane Yolen, author of more than 250 children’s books, including Tea with an Old Dragon, Raising Yoder’s Barn and Snow, Snow, three of her latest. Newsweek Magazine called Jane Yolen the Hans Christian Andersen of America. Jane has also been called the Aesop of the twentieth century. No children’s writer has better credentials to talk about a lifetime career in children’s writing. After many books, Jane Yolen is still writing strong. Tonight she will share the lessons of her writing life with us, gently yet powerfully. Since selling her first book on her twenty-second birthday, she has had a stream of published works in many genres. Her books and stories have won the Caldecott Medal, two Nebula Awards, two Christopher Medals, the World Fantasy Award, three Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards, the Golden Kite Award, the Jewish Book Award, and the Association of Jewish Libraries Award. During all her award-winning years of publishing children’s books, Jane has continually and heartfully inspired and supported a host of other children’s writers.

Mel: is Mel Boring, moderator of this chat with Jane Yolen, and editor of the ICL Web Site.

Green shows the usernames of the people who asked questions of Jane Yolen.

Interviews are held every other Thursday evening for two hours, beginning at 9 CANADA/ Atlantic Time, 8 Eastern Time, 7 Central Time, 6 Mountain Time, and 5 Pacific Time.


Mel: I am especially proud to introduce to you Jane Yolen, the Hans Christian Andersen of America and the Aesop of the twentieth century. As moderator, I always try to remain fairly invisible, to let the spotlight fall completely on our guest. But tonight I must pay tribute to Jane Yolen, who was a strong influence on my becoming a children's writer thirty-some years ago. I first met Jane at the first SCBW (when it was called just that) Conference in Santa Monica, CA, where she was my mentor and critiqued my first writing for children. The encouragement she gave me then in 1972 got me started and has kept me going ever since. I know firsthand what an excellent mentor and teacher Jane Yolen is, as you will find out very soon tonight, as she chats about "How to Write Forever and with Joy." Welcome to the ICL Chat Room, Jane!


Mel: Hi, Jane—I’m sorry you’ve had problems with your computer tonight. We're GLAD you made it back!


Jane: Whew! My husband the computer expert couldn't help. It was my 8-year-old granddaughter who figured it out!


Mel: THANKS to that grand CHILD for helping you!

Jane: I feel the same. Computers have a way of dying on me. You are chatting with the last of the great Luddites.


Mel: Jane, tell us what are "Luddites"?


Jane: They were anti-machine folks at the start of the Industrial Revolution who tried to break up mechnical looms with sticks.


Mel: I knew there was a good story behind that word! Were you a writer as a child, Jane? If so, can you tell us about that?


Jane: Even more important, Mel, I was a child of writers. Both my parents wrote--my father as a journalist and my mother a (failed) short story writer. So the assumption I had was that ALL grownups were writers.


Mel: You took about the fastest route to writing that can be taken, college to learn about grammar/literature, then a writing job of some kind after college, then writing to publish. Did you purposely set out to follow that route in college?


Jane: Well, I was basically a poet and journalist, the first for my heart, the second to make a living. But I was a lousy journalist, incapable of asking people hard questions at the moment of distress. So I turned to editorial work. I am also—as you can see—a lousy typist.


Jane: Hmmm—Mel seems to have left. Was it something I said?


Mel: I’m back. WOW, this is the night for getting kicked off the Internet!

Jane: Or maybe because I, the Luddite, am here!


Mel: LOL! Let me ask you this, Jane, did you start out to publish in magazines before doing books?


Jane: I was published first in poetry journals (and school publications), then articles in magazines and newspapers. Finally I ghost wrote a book for my dad. In the course of my writing life, one would be hard put to find something I haven't attempted.


Mel: What kind of book did you ghost write for your dad?


Jane: The book was called The Young Sportsman’s Guide to Kite Flying. My father was International Kite Flying Champion and was asked to do the book. DON'T ask about the kites—it’s a long story!


Mel: Wasn't your first book, Pirates in Petticoats, a nonfiction book? How did that book come about?


Jane: I sent out picture book manuscripts for some time, along with art by a friend. No one was interested. Then I was introduced to the children's book editor at McKay through my father's friend who was a veep there. The editor was NOT pleased. Hated all my ideas. BUT she liked the one-page proposal for a book on women pirates and took a chance on me because I had already published many nonfiction articles. So, on my 22nd birthday, she offered me a contract. The moral of this story was: I didn't do my homework on picture books but I did have a nonfiction track record.

Mel: What magazines were those early nonfiction articles published in, Jane?


Jane: Early articles in (this will surprise you) Popular Mechanics, Ford Times, This Week.


Mel: WhatEVER did you publish in Popular Mechanics?


Jane: An article on kites, of course. With instructions on how to make them and fly them.


Mel: When did you first have what could be called a relationship with an editor? How did that come about, and what did you do to develop it?


Jane: I guess Rose Dobbs of McKay was my first, but certainly not my closest, editor. When I brought in my manuscript for Pirates in Petticoats, I sat in her office and we spent the entire day going over the manuscript word by word. Not many editors are willing to do that today. But my first best/close editorial relationship was with Ann Beneduce who bought two books of mine for World and then went on to buy over 30 more at TYCrowell, Philomel, and still remains a dear friend.


Mel: So you followed your editor, Ann Beneduce, from publisher to publisher?


Jane: Of course. An editor of that caliber, who responds to the work, is always a pearl beyond price.


Mel: How are editors different today in the way they do their job than they were when you first began publishing for children?


Jane: First of all, most of them are younger than my children! I call them Baby Editors. Second, they are all beholden to the Dreaded Pub Committee. They are not allowed to make decisions on their own. And third, most of them know little about the history of children's literature or the breadth of it.


Mel: What IS the Pub Committee?


Jane: The Publishing Committee, which is usually composed of all the editors, the marketing folk and the sales folk. An editor has to SELL the manuscript to that committee. Think: horse designed by a committee is a camel.


Mel: LOL! How do fiction books differ from when you first began to write and submit them, Jane?


Jane: First of all, I thought that only gods could write fiction. I was a short-form writer. (Still am, really.) But for me fiction just happened one day. I never looked back. Of course there are certain kinds of edgy, sexual, or bitchy books I find I cannot write. It's just not in me. But I am in awe of some books, like Speak and Monster, and don't understand books like Francesca Lia Block's stories.


Mel: Your books are mostly what could be considered "quiet books," aren't they? I think that's what makes them SO enjoyable. But are quiet books quite hard to sell nowadays?


Jane: Impossible to sell. I have about thirteen or fourteen such picture books making the rounds.


Mel: Wouldn't Owl Moon, your Caldecott winner, be considered a "quiet book"?


Jane: Yes—and back in 1985 when it sold, it was turned down as too quiet by the first five publishers who saw it. I doubt it would get published today!


Mel: Tell us, what does a book go through to become a Caldecott winner?


Jane: First it has to be published! And that's not an easy process. This year's winner, Mordicai Gerstein's The Man Who Walked Between The Towers, went to all the major publishers who turned it down. Finally he turned to a smaller press, Running Brook, and they loved it. Then the book has to be well edited, lovingly edited, and as well loved by several members of the 15 (?) person Caldecott Committee. Finally, someone has to sprinkle fairy dust. I am not kidding you. The winning of the Caldecott is attended by Fairy Dust.


Mel: How do you explain that MAJOR publishers did not recognize the potential in a book that went on to win the Caldecott?


Jane: Because choosing to publish a book is a matter of taste, educated guesswork, and cultivated venality. It's a surer bet you will sell more books written by Maria Shriver than Mordicai Gerstein. There is no guarantee that a great book will win the Caldecott. After all, there's only one a year!


piper: Hello, Jane. When writing fantasy, is there ever a time when using the elements, earth, air, fire, water, is considered taboo?


Jane:
No--I should think using the elements could be very powerful. OR could be very cliched. Just be sure to come down on the side of power!


grandy1983: Welcome, Jane! Why is it so difficult to organize and come up with ideas when we are surrounded by them? It takes me forever to begin writing a story or even an outline because I have such difficulty!


Jane: I think the more one writes, the better that organizational ability becomes. Prioritizing ideas, knowing which ones are viable (and viability comes in many forms, such as—will it sell and will it make my heart sing—and am I ready to write such a book?). But really the more often you work on pieces, the better you will become at figuring this out.


Mel: How do nonfiction books differ today from when you first began to write them, with your Pirates in Petticoats?


Jane: We no longer allow fake conversations/dialogue. We want a more rounded look at our heroes. We no longer allow Parson Weeming. Weems was the one who invented the George Washington chopping down the cherry tree story to idealize Washington. Oh yes--and we look at the other side of the story now.


silverdove: Hi Jane, and thanks for joining us tonight. What was your major in college?


Jane:
Majored in English, minored in religion and Russian novels in translation.


Mel: Have your religion and Russian novels studies helped in your writing for children?


Jane: Certainly the religion did. I have written a number of books that feature religion. The Russian novels fed my need for depressing books.


Mel: A pre-submitted question from MS: Jane, how did you ever find the courage to enter that many contests to win that many awards?


Jane: Er--I haven't entered any contests that I can remember. The publishers submit books, not the authors.


Mel: Tell us about that awards process, Jane. What happens at publishing houses to make them submit books for awards, or do they submit ALL their books?


Jane: For some awards--like the Newbery and Caldecott--everything is submitted. For things like the National Book Award, which costs the publishers money to submit, they make careful decisions about which books might have a chance.


Mel: If you were just starting out in children's writing with today's market—or lack thereof—would you follow the same route you took to publishing for children? Or is the market all that much worse today, as we sometimes hear?


Jane: It took me about seven books before I caught fire. Not many publishers can do that these days. Most of my books are quiet books, very hard to sell these days. What publishers are looking for now are easy sellers (celebrities), fart and butt books, series books, and brand-able books. I have 250 books out, and finally in How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight had a national bestseller. You do the math.


Mel: Here's some math: I'm figuring your 250 published books, over a period of 40 years, would average about six a year. How did you ever write that many per year? Could a "regular" author sell six books per year in today's market?


Jane: What is a "regular" author? How many books a year does J.K. Rowling write? Or Maurice Sendak? Some of us are multiple book writers, others are one book every five years. Not a race. Just a fact.


Mel: EXCELLENT answer!


blubug: Are dinosaurs something you studied before writing about them?


Jane: Well, I had three children, two of them dinosaur crazy boys. So in my day I have read a LOT about dinosaurs. However, neither of my How Do Dino books or my Dinosaur Dances books have much to do with actual dinosaurs.


Mel: Now you collaborate with your photographer son, I know. How did your children help out with your children's books when they were young and as they were growing up?


Jane: How did they help? Sometimes I stole lines from them. But I never made them read manuscripts or even read finished books. They were each presented with first editions of all my new books. But otherwise mommy and Jane Yolen were two different folk.


Mel: How was your husband supportive of your writing, along the way? Could you/would you have done it without his support, I mean BESIDES his being a computer whiz?
J

Jane: Since I was already a published writer before I got married, he knew what he was getting into before we got together permanently. Been married 42 years. He has always been my greatest supporter, my first reader, my strict editor, my cheerleader.

Mel: Jane, you and David have been through difficult times lately, as reflected in your adult book, The Radiation Sonnets. Could you tell us some about that, please?


Jane: Well, David had an assortment of odd symptoms, and 19 doctors and a year later, it was discovered that he had a massive inoperable skull base tumor. And when radiation started, I spent all my time taking care of him, not worrying about writing. Except for a sonnet a night after he was asleep. It kept me alive and brought me some understanding about what we were going through, allowed me to spin straw into gold if you like. Never expected to write any such, never expected to sell a book, but he insisted I try if it might help someone else.


Mel: "Beautiful" is a very reserved word in my vocabulary, but I HAVE to say that The Radiation Sonnets is truly BEAUTIFUL! My wife and I gave it to a close friend recently, whose writer husband had just died of complications like your husband’s. It’s a very comforting book, even for us who are fortunate enough to be very healthy. Thank you for writing it!


Mel: A thoughtful pre-submitted question from Nancy: When you say that many writers write about the same things, do you mean they write on the same (universal) themes, or that they don't give these themes an original twist/viewpoint/way of being presented? Do you have any practical suggestions, sort of a starting point from which a writer can become "broad and deep" and not be/stop being "boring"?


Jane: I mean that too many people write the same book over and over again. And I think that if as writers we don't keep stretching, keep trying to do something new, then we will never write anything extraordinary, whether it sells or not. But then I have a very low threshold of boredom.


passion: How long did it actually take you to be accepted by your first publisher?


Jane: I tried to sell books for about a year before I got to meet with Rose Dobbs. I tried to sell/place/find a publisher for my poetry and had 113 rejections with which I papered my bedroom before I had my first poetry taken.


tampa: Have you had any bad experiences with editors?


Jane: Oh my—with 250 books—of course. I have been lied to, I have had manuscripts lost, ideas taken, bad illustrations missed. I have been told to butt out of any picture decisions, I have had books put Out of Print even though they were selling well. But I have had even more great relationships with editors. And frankly—some of the above BAD things happened with my FAVORITE editors. Gee—it's like real life!


dreamwanderer: One of the most difficult things for me is finding the right title. I love so many of yours, what is your secret?

Jane: I have a secret to tell you—I am a title maven. I help my friends with great titles. For example, I found Arthur for the Very First Time for Patty MacLachlan.


Mel: Amazing anecdote, Jane!


story gal: How do you know when a story is "done"?


Jane: Aha--the biggie. It has as much to do with being willing to "let go"of the story. And also a realization that you are now writing a different story (your next!) only you haven't quite realized it yet. Sometimes you need someone else to tell you you are done. I remember a story Betsy Lewin told me, about finding a lovely watercolor full of mist and magic on her husband Ted's easel. He had taken a break and was coming back to put in more detail and she simply took it off and told him he was through. That picture is the title page spread of our book Bird Watch. It took him a couple of days to thank her.

mbvoelker: You're incredibly prolific. How long does a book take you to write? Do you work on more than one at the same time or work one through straight from idea to final edit before beginning the next?


Jane:
I work on many at the same time (like a child going to different classes in school) because I never know when one is going to go stale on me. But sometimes, when one book is full of fire (or maybe I am full of fire) I then spend intense periods of time on the on-fire project.


Mel: I'm just graduating from the Institute of Children's Literature correspondence course. What should I do to start a career in writing for children?


Jane: Write. I am not being facetious. It's really at the base of any career. Too many people want to have written but hate the writing. Take joy in the work, in the process. Then after you have things you are proud of, workshop them, get a second opinion, go to conferences, join SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators). At that point you are ready to submit your work. But still ENJOY THE PROCESS OF WRITING.


Mel: Strong WISDOM, Jane, and thanks! And here's a compliment to you from izzy:


izzy: Please relay to Jane that I am a fan of hers. I once e-mailed her with a question and a comment and she was so nice and returned my e-mail. I just want to say thank you for your time and patience. I am honored.

Jane: Hi izzy—I answer all questions and e-mails and letters—as long as they have a viable address. Never know where the next Sendak and/or Le Guin may be! I am a reader even before I am a writer, you know.

Mel: What is your writing schedule like, and how has it changed over the years of your writing for children?


Jane: My schedule for writing has changed according to having a job and children more than anything. And health. Right now I am recovering from knee replacement surgery five weeks ago, and only last week was I finally able to think straight enough to write again. Now I am writing around three rounds of daily Physical Therapy at home, swimming, and two outside rounds of PT. Leaves little time.


guessit: What do you think is the difference between writing for children and writing for young adults, books and articles? I mean, what does it take to do each one?


Jane: First, you need to acquaint yourself, immerse yourself, in the genre you are interested in. Don't write a picture book without understanding the form, ditto the YA book. Some people are good at one and not the other. Some authors—like Ann Turner, Cindy Rylant, Jane Zalben, Walter Dean Myers, Nikki Grimes—are good at a variety of types of books. I am happiest at the short form, but sometimes an idea implants in my brain that can only be a YA book.
Mel: BH presubmitted this question: How reasonable it is to expect to make a comfortable living writing children's books nowadays, providing one has enough talent and works hard every day?


Jane: Don't quit your day job. Or else marry well. (Or have a large trust fund.) Most children's book writers make about $5000 a year at their work.


Mel: THANKS for a truth that nearly NONE of us writers talks about, Jane!


story gal: Can you describe the process of working with a co-writer?

Jane: Make sure you set up parameters before you begin—such as whose name goes first (the one who had the idea), how any profits are split (I always go with 50/50, but that is arguable), who has last pass on the manuscript, etc. Iron these out early or there WILL be problems.


passion: How did you manage to first get published in poetry journals, and how long was it after that that you were "discovered" as a poet?


Jane: I have never really been discovered as a poet for adults, but it was about my twelfth book of children's poetry when Lee Bennet Hopkins wrote an article about me and my poetry. After that, I think I was discovered. Other people—especially those who ONLY do poetry, are discovered more quickly.


blumoon: What was the most important work you have written, in your opinion?


Jane: Devil's Arithmetic, Briar Rose, and Owl Moon.


Mel: What makes you pick those three as your most important works, Jane?


Jane: My gut feeling.


Mel: You've got accurate guts!
J


story gal: How long should we wait before a second contact after sending a publisher a query letter and receiving no answer?


Jane: Four months, send a letter. Six months, try a phone call. Eight months after, send a letter explaining that you will leave the manuscript there, but no longer as a exclusive submission and send it elsewhere as well.


tampa: What is your opinion of the subject matter of YA books today?


Jane: I call it the edgy, big butt, f***ing school of writing. Not for me.


silverdove: Do you have an agent? If so, when in your career did you first contact the agent?


Jane: I contacted my wonderful agent after I had sold five books. Since I was working as a children's book editor, I didn't think I needed anyone before that. But I was going off to Europe with my husband for a year and needed someone looking after my work. That was 39 years ago and she died last August. I will never stop missing her.


story gal: How important is marketing your own books?


Jane: These days, marketing is mostly left up to the author.There are books now about how to market your stuff as well as books about going to do school visits. I watch my daughter, Heidi Stemple, a young children's book author, and marvel at how much work she does. I have slowed down a lot, and not just because of my knee operation!


story gal: How many hours a day do you write, that is, when you're not recovering from knee replacement surgery?


Jane: Please pardon my typing, by the way. Usually anywhere from three or four to ten, depending upon whether I am on fire or not. (Or grocery shopping or going to my writers' meeting or giving a speech.)


Mel: Another presubmitted question: How much can you expect to be paid today by a publisher for, let's say, a 150-page middle-grade chapter book?


Jane: Depending upon the publisher and who the author is (or the author's backstory) anywhere from $5000 to $15,000. But probably closer to the smaller number.


Mel: VB asks via e-mail: What strikes me is the wealth of diversity you bring to your work. Tell us, do you work on several different projects at one time, or do you tend to work on one or two stories exclusively until they are finished?


Jane: As I said, I work on many at the same time (like a child going to different classes in school) because I never know when one is going to go stale on me. But sometimes, when one book is full of fire (or maybe I am full of fire) I then spend intense periods of time on the on-fire project.


Mel: Our time with you has flown like sixty, Jane. You have shared so MUCH with us, yet we suspect that there is so much more you could share. Thank you so much for coming to chat with us this evening. And I'd like to ask if you'd be willling to come back again someday.


Jane: Sure—if I don't crash the system again! Remember that word "Luddite". It might come in handy some time!


Mel: In two weeks, on February 5, we will welcome Jill Esbaum to our ICL chat room. She will chat with us on the topic, "Picture Book Tips From a (Former) Rejection Queen (or How to Get an Editor's Attention Without Resorting to Kidnapping)." Jill Esbaum's first picture book, Stink Soup, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, will be released March 8th. Another, Ste-e-e-e-eamboat A-Comin’!, is scheduled for 2005. Over 40 of her poems, stories, and articles have been published in leading children's magazines. One of her poems appears in the poetry anthology, I Invited a Dragon to Dinner. Jill is a very able teacher, not only about the mechanics of children's picture books, but about the finer arts of characterization, voice, setting, and that all-important first page, plus ways to develop a thicker skin, which is something all we writers need! If you are at all interested in writing children's picture books, you won’t want to miss chatting with Jill Esbaum February 5!


Mel: Jane, you are a real TROUPER to come chat with us so soon after knee surgery! Again, we really appreciate your being here tonight, and I know the archive where this chat will be posted tomorrow will be visited by MANY for a LONG time to come. Joy to you in your writing, Jane, in this year and for many years to come!

Jane: Thanks, Mel. It's time for Tylenol and bed.


Mel: Goodnight, Jane! Goodnight, everychatter! THANKS so MUCH for coming!

Jane: Goodnight all.

 

 

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