Cynthia Leitich Smith on Writing for the Long Haul

Cynthia Leitich Smith was one of the first writers I mentioned the idea of a Writing for the Long Haul series to, and when I did, she commented that those who keep writing are “writing survivors.”

I’m thrilled to kick the series off with a post from Cynthia on what writing survival means to her.

I owe much of my publishing success to my lack of financial security.

When I hear others talk of the pain of rejection or the unfairness of market whims or the challenge of staying motivated, I think of my mortgage, the payment due on my health insurance, and the cost of my guilty pleasure—Whole Foods hummus.

Of course that’s not the whole equation. While many of my children’s-YA books have sold well (and a few not-so-well), I don’t initially conceive or craft them from a commercial perspective.

Instead, I’m a creature of two brains.

One: the literary artist with a commitment to diverse (defined broadly) protagonists and an experimental bent with regard to age markets, techniques and forms. I’ve published funny picture books, quiet multicultural books, quasi-memoir essays, and YA adventure-fantasies with a feminist and intercultural bent. I’ve won awards and made bestseller lists and seen books go out of print.

Two: the fierce, savvy business person who takes all that—coupled with speaking and teaching fees—and cobbles together a base salary. In the latter years I’ve earned more, in the early years less, but having a baseline goal keeps me pounding the keyboard, hitting the road, and stretching in new directions.

I have a respectful patience for the inner artist but always hold her accountable.

You’re in love with that niche project? Fine. How are you going to market it? Not the publisher—you. Whatever the house does, that’s icing. You encourage it. You work it. But it’s your name on the byline.

Your sales figures can and will be held against you. Glancing around the conference floor, you notice how many of your once-popular colleagues are no longer in the game. Doesn’t anyone else miss them?

How do you carry on? What are you going to do?

What you’ve always done. Choose yourself, your book, whatever you’re trying to say in the whole. Do it in such a way that lifts up everyone, that doesn’t apologize for mattering, that shows a sense of purpose. Recognize but don’t dwell on the uncontrollable. Where there is potential for forward momentum, give it grease with as much good humor and dignity as you can spare.

You’ve stumbled before. You’ve fallen before and started over from scratch. You’ve made a fool out of yourself. You’ve also helped build readers and community and changed lives for the better.

There’s wisdom to be gained from all that and stories that can help someone else. All of your fellow survivors have successfully reinvented themselves at least once and so can you.

Do for yourself what you do for your stories.

When all else fails, begin again.

If only because hummus is expensive.

Cynthia Leitich Smith is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author of the Tantalize series and Feral series. Her award-winning books for younger children include Jingle Dancer, Indian Shoes, and Rain is Not My Indian Name. She first published Jingle Dancer in 2000.

More about the Writing for the Long Haul series.

32 thoughts on “Cynthia Leitich Smith on Writing for the Long Haul”

        1. (I think my wisdom failed me and I deleted the bit I was being wise about. So just in case I’ll effectively undelete it by saying here: “It’s never belated … that’s why the post is still here!” :-))

  1. This interview reminds me of what I admired about you, Cyn, at VCFA. With the perfect response, you snapped me out of my angst when I needed support and you managed to convey both the creative AND the practical.

  2. This is SUCH a GREAT piece. Cynthia does it again. She’s brilliant and so spot on with this advice and her thoughts about writing and publishing. She inspires me to no end. Loved reading it. Thank you, Cyn and Janni!

  3. >>Glancing around the conference floor, you notice how many of your once-popular colleagues are no longer in the game. Doesn’t anyone else miss them?<<<

    God, yes! I think of them as "my class" — the writers who started publishing around when I did, in the mid-90s, It shocks and scares me to see how many of them have (for whatever reason) stopped publishing. (You see it with editors who start out, also,; relatively few have long careers.) I believe there are many reasons why this is so, but learning to manage expectations and weather the financial ups and downs is indeed the key point. I'm working on a blog post for Janni in this series, too, and will say more in depth then.

    1. I eagerly await your post, Nancy. You’ve got me so curious. Two of my first 3 editors (yes, my first three books were all orphaned and I went through an 8 year famine after that!) all went on to other careers. I thought it was so strange when one of them left editing after a few years to start a catering business! Really?!

    2. Me too, Nancy, about wondering about my “class,” Nancy. It was one of the things I was thinking about when I decided to do this series. I wonder not only about my class starting out, but about the classes for my various reboots, too.

      I feel like part of it is stopping publishing, but part is also stopping writing (or writing with the intention of publishing). We can’t always control whether our work is published, but we can control whether we’re writing. But even that isn’t always as easy or simple as it sounds, which is part of what makes the question of what it takes to keep going so interesting to me.

      Looking forward to your post!

  4. Terrific article, Cyn. I marvel at the way you continue to diversify and conquer new genres, while holding the line on quality. Thanks, also, for talking about the fact of life that is rejection. If a writer doesn’t keep moving on, they’re dead, as Woody Allen might have said, except better.

      1. Maybe it’s in the air? I’m feeling not like I want to stop doing what I’m doing, but like I want to add other things in and begin mixing it up a little again, too.

  5. Cynthia is the perfect person for launching this series. I’m here to say that one of the reasons that many of us are in it for the long haul is because of Cyn and her endless generosity. She’s a believer, not only in our profession, but in our ability to overcome the downs . . . and ups!

    1. Yes, this, exactly. Cyn was so incredibly generous during my first, terrible year. I wouldn’t still be going without her– I believe this absolutely. Perfect kick-off to this series!

  6. Great article! I love Cynthia’s work (and Janni’s too) and am glad you’re both still in the game. Publishing is a game changer, that’s for sure, and I’m still playing but in a new genre for 2014 — my first picture book. Keep on writing and see you in print!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *