Even if you don’t become famous …
By Wim Coleman and Pat Perrin
Published: October 26, 2009
The Children’s Book Review presents a guest post by Pat Perrin and Wim Colemen, a duo who thrive on collaboration. As co-creators of many books for young readers, they’ve managed to stay full-time writers for well over a decade.
What if you don’t gain fame and fortune? Can you still make a living as a writer? Can you even keep writing?
As married collaborative writers, semi-success came pretty quickly for us. So did semi-fame. So did semi-failure. That last one in particular brought us face to face with essential questions about what writing meant to us.
We met in Los Angeles in the 1980s and began telling each other stories pretty much as soon as we met. We started writing and passing ideas back and forth, building on them. Even though all the authorities we knew said it was a waste of time and resources, we launched an experimental newsletter to share our stories with the world.
We soon proposed and wrote a non-fiction book for a major publisher. Meanwhile, a high-powered New York literary agent decided that our eccentric newsletter would make a terrific novel. During a heady five years, we had four books contracted by major publishers, a couple of those with hefty advances. A major movie studio took out an option on our second novel, renewing it with handsome payments for two years. Foreign language editions of two books cropped up as far away as Japan, bringing us more advances.
So we were off to the kind of start that aspiring writers envy—getting paid to write. During those years, we lived a dream come true. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, as it turned out, plenty.
Our first three books got marvelous reviews, but none were monster bestsellers. We were working on our fourth contract, a novel, when some all-too-frequent publishing traumas caught up with us.
Our publisher was bought out by an international corporation that raised the bar on profits. The supportive editor who had initially acquired our work left. The quite capable editor who took over lacked clout. Our fourth book was finally cancelled by the marketing department—which grumbled that the story had “too many ideas.” (Remember when they said that Mozart used “too many notes”?) The movie option evaporated after the screenwriter had a nervous breakdown and the producer left the studio.
Suddenly, we were down and out—no contracts, no prospects, no income.
Well, it wasn’t like neither of us could hold down a job. One or the other of us had already worked for varying lengths of time in public school teaching, sign painting, stage carpentry, bartending, horse training, pizza making, waiting tables, editing, technical writing, teaching computer graphics, and general office tasks. We both have advanced degrees.
Surely we could get jobs. And certainly, lots of good writers manage their creative work in the salvaged hours before, after, or between job or family demands. Some even prefer supporting themselves with day jobs and writing whenever possible.
But by the time our crash came, we were thoroughly committed to writing all the time, to learning about new things, to the excitement of the creative experience. In fact, we’d come to define creativity itself as a learning experience—as a way of finding out about characters and ideas, rather than merely a means of self-expression. For us, creativity meant writing what you don’t know.
But how were we to survive? We discovered a reliable market that allowed us to continue writing, learning, developing, and ultimately creating. Writing for the educational market—writing books that wind up in classrooms and on school library shelves—honed our skills and pointed us toward new ideas.
Here are a few things we found out along the way:
• You can earn a steady (if not huge) income if you research and write hard and fast.
• Writing professionally for young readers will clean up your sentence structure.
• Editors like you if they don’t have to do a lot of editing. They’ll send you more jobs if your writing is clean and clear.
• Much of the work might as well be done on a flat fee, because many of these books will not earn out even a modest advance. This is an area that writers and publishers are constantly negotiating. In addition to a lot of flat-fee work, we do have a few books that pay decent royalties.
• Yes, there are restrictions on educational jobs, but we were already familiar with restrictions. Our major publishers had expected us to produce clone-like stories written in a highly identifiable style.
• Our very obsession with ideas, our love of the hunt for ideas, our special craving for ideas and information just beyond our ready knowledge—all of these made us valuable to our clients. Never once did an educational publisher accuse us of having “too many ideas.”
• Although most educational work is on pre-conceived topics, you can sometimes suggest projects. We did some fun titles that were our own invention, including a fiction series and a book of one-act plays that has become popular with school drama departments.
• These books go into libraries. Librarians recognize your name when your new books come along and are inclined to order them.
But here’s the most important thing about this kind of work: You learn stuff in a lot of different areas. Indeed, you can get more jobs if you’re not a specialist. (Here’s a dark secret: tenured academic experts in any given field are often terrible writers.) In our freelance work, we’ve written a lot of nonfiction about history, mythology, literature, and a good bit of fiction ranging from historical to science fiction and fantasy.
And nobody can take the stuff you learn away from you. It adds to what you already know, and it all becomes fodder for truly creative work. Pat used both her research into world mythology and her imagination when she wrote the popular picture book The Secret World of Unicorns. Wim drew on an even longer string of research connections for our recent novel Anna’s World.
A couple of decades ago, a fairly well-known composer commissioned Wim to write an opera about the American religious sect called the Shakers. He wrote the libretto (loosely based on Hawthorne’s story “The Shaker Bridal”), but the composer never got around to writing the score and eventually died. Even so, Wim’s fascination with the Shakers continued. He was especially attracted to the group’s commitments to egalitarianism, pacifism, and economic justice.
While we were writing for educational publishers, Wim was assigned to edit and compile a book of source materials about the Shakers. The same small publisher paid him to do a similar book about the Mexican War, and Pat did another one about American slavery. By the time we had completed these three books, we had enough information on hand to write a novel about the Shakers, set in their heyday during the 1840s. So we wrote our YA novel Anna’s World, which portrayed the title heroine’s life among the Shakers. We published Anna’s World through ChironBooks in July 2009. (That’s another whole story—for some other time.)
Anna’s World has won three national awards, is already turning up in libraries, and looks set to do well. We drew on our mythology research again for our newest release, The Taker and the Keeper. We have a hefty list of upcoming titles, several of them inspired by the work we did as educational writers.
Although we began with books for adults, we’ve discovered that we really like writing for young people. Madeline L’Engle’s oft-quoted line puts it best: “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”
Maybe someday we’ll get rich and famous, but even if we don’t, we expect to survive as writers. Most importantly, we expect to have a great time doing it.