Writers at Work: What Else is Out There, Part 3

Hi everyone,

Today we bring you Part 3 in the new series in Writers at Work, a conversation between Sandy Asher and me that invites readers into the chat with your own thoughts on the subject. It’s my turn again so away I go.

Topic 14: What Else is Out There?
Part 3: David
September 23, 2014

“Don a rooster mask and crow?” Really? Sandy, I think I’ll stick to poems and stories! But I would like to hear a recording of a roomful of playwrights limbering up their barnyard chorus. Hmmm. Maybe you could make a recording and play it as background music for a staged sequel to Too Many Frogs called Too Many Roosters. Just a thought.

So now it’s back to me. In Part 1, I wrote about my decision in the late 90s to break into the educational market. I had a reason, a plan. My logic was to become better known among the university folks who teach children’s literature and write about authors and poets who create it. I wanted to go to the source so that new teachers would already have an idea about my work. I got my share of comeuppances along the way but teachers are above all generous so I had plenty of help and encouragement as I toiled along unfamiliar pathways.

It didn’t take long to learn some important differences between writing for kids (via trade books) and writing to teachers about kids (via educational publications). For example I learned that trade book authors “speak” at conferences while educational book authors “present.” The way in which national conferences treat trade book authors has changed during the past fifteen years. These days fewer of us are featured in conference programs. Looking back, I made the transition almost without realizing at the time that I’d made a lucky choice which gave me a second option.

Sandy, as we’ve mentioned before, nothing is easy or uncomplicated about this business no matter whose yard we’re playing in. One of my early initiations into the educational market was learning how to write and submit a proposal to present at a conference. I went online, downloaded a submission form, blinked and swallowed rapidly, asked myself, “Why? Why?” and tackled the blanks. Who was I? What did I propose to present? In what way would my presentation be useful to classroom teachers? What credentials could I offer germane to the occasion? Who should attend my sessions? And on.

On my first submission, I was accepted but conference planners paired me with another presenter and told us we’d each have half of the allotted time. The other party and I were strangers. She was repelled by the requirement of sharing, especially with a trade book writer! After a terse exchange, she contacted the conference chair and refused to appear. I got the whole hour. Nanner nanner nanner. Next I was paired with a different professor, again someone I didn’t know. We met for the first time a few minutes before going on. We got through it but it wasn’t the most professional act you ever saw.

Then came a conference where I met Mary Jo Fresch at an authors’ reception. She’s a professor of Teaching and Learning at Ohio State University and loves children’s literature. Our friendship was immediate and it wasn’t long before we not only started presenting together but writing books too. We now have five titles in print and are working on a sixth. Our presentations draw well. Our current proposal, which includes two others, is already submitted for IRA in St. Louis next year. There is never a guarantee of acceptance. One year at NCTE (National Council for Teachers of English) Mary Jo, Margaret (Peggy) Harkins, and I packed a large room. Every seat was taken and people sat on the floor along the walls while others in the hall craned to look in. The next year NCTE turned down our proposal which, by the way, included one of the big names in education, a man who is a frequent keynote speaker.

I sometimes remind myself that this was my “what else is out there” plan to find new work and become better known in educational circles. It has taken on a life of its own but in the beginning I envisioned it as a way to promote my name and my trade books. On with my story. There’s the matter of money to pay for these conference trips. By the time I learn if I’ve been accepted, many of my publishers have completed their author support budget for the year. If I don’t present, they won’t help me. But if I don’t tell them in time, they can’t help me. If I present at more than one conference during the year, they may not be able to help me. Universities tend to provide conference funding for their main professors as part of the “publish or perish” big picture. Trade authors have no one to turn to if our publishers can’t help. Sandy, I’m not whining about this. Okay, I’m whining, but not BIG whining, just LITTLE whining. If we want to play in someone else’s neighborhood, we have to play nice and accept their rules. I’m glad I made the effort and happy to have become part of the educational publishing crowd.

Sandy, I’m about ready to pass this back to you, but there’s one more point I want to make. It’s another aspect of the educational writing business. I find myself doing a lot of pro bono work. I am delighted, flattered, and honored when asked to contribute something to a journal or book. Recently I wrote a chapter in a book for classroom teachers. Of the twenty-one authors, I was one of two not involved directly in education, mostly at the university level. The other author was James Cross Giblin. Did I work hard on that 20-page, 5,600 word manuscript? You bet I did! I wanted it to be my best effort and I worked hard on it for a good many weeks. How much was I paid? Not a dime.

Not long ago I was invited to write an article for a planned issue of a respected journal. Four professors and a number of others were involved and everyone worked hard. Chalk off another several weeks. When all was ready, we had a nasty jolt. The journal’s editor resigned and was replaced by someone with different ideas about the direction the journal should take. Our issue was cancelled. I have a good article now, taking a long nap in a file.

That’s it. What else is out there? Plenty. Writers write and we’re a curious lot to boot. Over the years I’ve gone from fiction to nonfiction to poetry to how-to books to digital publishing to educational publishing. The list of possibilities is long, my friend. I wonder what we’ll try next?

15 comments on “Writers at Work: What Else is Out There, Part 3

  1. An honest and informative post, David. Reminded me of all the pro bono writing I’ve done as well, and continue to do. And if not pro bono, then seriously underpaid! There are times I have something I want to say and am glad to be given the chance to say it. And there are times (often the same times) when I figure it’s worth it to get my name out there. And, truth be told, there are times (same ones, often as not) when being invited massages the ego just enough, especially when I’m invited to join others whom I admire. And so it goes. I agree, Penny Parker Klostermann. This IS an interesting conversation!

    • Hi, Partner. Now I’ve given my two cents worth so next Tuesday will be your turn again. I look forward to what you have to say!

  2. I, too, have been enjoying the series, David. I wonder, do you think you would’ve been able to make that move into the educational market without your previous writing experience? That is, do you think you could have started in education and moved the other way as easily?

    • Matt, I’d say it wouldn’t have worked as well for me to start on the education side. I first had to establish myself as a children’s writer before I could gain much credence with teachers. It’s true that teachers sometimes cross over into trade publishing, but I wasn’t a teacher so I had no bully pulpit or war stories or special insight into the classroom.

    • Good morning, Jeanne. Thanks, as always, for your comments. I think you’re right. Both markets are demanding. Each has its special requirements but breaking in can be difficult.

  3. This is a tough business. Self-promotion is the hardest part for me. No, wait, writing is the hardest part. No, make that trying to keep life balanced between work and play and life’s chores and joys.

  4. Eat lots of ice cream! Then write a romance. Eyes meeting over the glassy counter: Vanilla? Cookies & Cream? Peppermint? Hot vibes melting the choices below. Or a diet book. Something that people will, like, buy. .

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