Life Support

The ending of the first draft of my mystery novel is glimmering in the near distance. It will need many drafts before I’m done, done, done. Still, I’m beginning to wonder what I want my next novel to be.

When I was a wannabe kids’ book writer I often heard editors at conferences say that we beginners should write from our hearts and not consider the marketplace. Excellent advice; excellent even though editors and acquisition committees always consider the marketplace. Writing is hard enough if we love our story. If we love only what the story may bring us (publication, readers, a way out of a boring job), hard becomes agony.

How does this calculation change – or does it change – when we’ve written and published a few books?

I have several unpublished picture books and one published one: Betsy Who Cried Wolf, which is less read than any other of my books, although it’s a book I love. A few years ago I had the chance to ask several editors at HarperCollins what I could do to keep Betsy alive. I thought they would say I should visit more lower elementary grades and talk up the book, which isn’t a bad thing to do anyway, but every single editor said, Write more picture books.

This is the truth I learned: Unless you write a To Kill A Mockingbird or A Catcher in the Rye, it’s important for your writing career (if you want a writing career) to have more than one book up your sleeve. You should be prolific because the reader who falls in love with your first book will want more of you. Those who read your second book first and love it will seek out your first book. And so on. I wish J. D. Salinger and Harper Lee had written more books.

This applies not merely to the number of books you write, but also to the kind. Children of picture-book age and their parents will want more picture books. Kids who are into fantasy will want more fantasy.

Regarding Betsy Who Cried Wolf, I decided to try to write another picture book, and I decided it should be a Betsy book, so I cast about for an idea. My sole motive was to write a new book to support the old one. This anecdote has a disappointingly happy ending from the moral point of view. I found an idea and wrote a bad draft, which critique buddies and my editor helped me improve and improve and improve until now I approve of it. The book, Betsy Red Hoodie, will be out next summer or fall. As with Betsy Who Cried Wolf, it will have delightful illustrations by Scott Nash, even more delightful, since the sheep now wear hats.

Still, my reason for writing Betsy Red Hoodie stank. And yet, I will try to write more Betsy books after this one. Maybe there is no moral here.

Back to deliberations over my next novel. One of the comments in my last post was a question about the sort of books Dave at Night and Ever are. You probably know that Ella Enchanted is my most read book (I don’t like to say best-selling, but that too). The closer a book I write is to Ella, the more readers flock to it. The outliers – like The Wish, which is a contemporary fantasy, and even Ever, which is an ancient Mesopotamian fantasy, and most of all, Dave at Night, a historical novel and not a fantasy – have to fend for themselves. (Writing Magic, nonfiction, is in an entirely different category and is finding its audience.)

If I could write a series about Ella, I wouldn’t have to deliberate. Lots of people, kids and adults, enjoy the comfort of a series, returning to beloved characters and finding out what new messes they’ve gotten into. I like series too. I’ve mentioned before that I adore Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

But although I’ve written three books in the Disney Fairies series, I’m not really a series writer. I don’t have a series arc in mind. I just make up new adventures each time. And usually I find writing a novel so arduous that when I’m done I don’t want to go near those characters ever again.

My mystery novel may also hover on the periphery. It’s fantasy, but there are no fairies and no romance. However, it’s been fascinating to write, which may be the real moral.

So these are my thoughts for my future: I have an idea for another book in the world of Dave at Night, a second historical novel. This one would be about Dave’s friend Alfie, who has to leave the orphanage because he has consumption (tuberculosis).

I would also like to write a novel about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, which affected my ancestors on my father’s side. Our clan moved to Turkey, but the expulsion reverberated so strongly through the generations that my family went on speaking Spanish for 500 years. Although the idea is historical, I will probably turn it into another fantasy in ancient Mesopotamia, and I won’t have to do extensive research.

Then I also have ideas connected to The Wish and The Two Princesses of Bamarre. In the end, I will probably go with the story that makes me the happiest to think about. Writing a picture book doesn’t take very long. It’s like a vacation in the south of France. Ooh la la! Charmant, but over before you know it. Writing a novel is an expedition. You need a string of camels to make it to your destination; best if each camel has a dozen humps filled with enthusiasm.

What does this mean for you? It’s simply information. Get to know the kind of writer you are, what you’re drawn to. If you like to skip around and try many things, that’s fine. It’s really great, actually. If you like to write only about robots that can manipulate humans through thought control, that’s great too. Just have fun, and save what you write!