Sweet Valley Diaries

Writing makes the world better.

You can get your byline in the local newspaper–all you must do is hunt down a great story. Impossible? Hardly. Follow this editor (and freelancer) as he shows you how to “track and trap the wild story.”

When I got the Sunday editor job at The Post-Star in Glens Falls, New York, it was time for me to start breathing life into our fatigued feature pages–and I had no idea how I was going to do it.

So I worked out a system, saving my skin and increasing the circulation of the Sunday paper. And in the process I bought hundreds of stories from dozens of freelancers. Later, my system helped me become a successful freelancer, with sales to newspapers such as the Telegram & Gazette in Worcester, Massachusetts (one of the largest dailies in New England), and the Providence Journal-Bulletin’s Sunday insert, The Rhode Islander Magazine.

The same system will help you make sales to daily and weekly newspapers–if you’re willing to do your homework. I call it “tracking and trapping the wild story,” though it works equally well for mild-mannered subject matter, such as an article about the first straw bonnet made in America, a piece I sold to The Rhode Islander Magazine.

Knowing Your Prey

The key to the system, and the first thing to realize about daily newspapers, is that they never lack for material. The great majority of them subscribe to news services such as The Associated Press, so editors always have 149 stories to choose from about the latest situation in Bangladesh. The news services also provide generic food stories, movie reviews, news from the state capital and so on.

What daily newspapers often need is good local material–stories from the towns in which they circulate. Since these are the towns in which you live, shop and visit friends, you’re in a perfect position to find those stories.

So what makes a good story? Something surprising. Something offbeat. Something wild. Above all, something that the newspaper’s own reporters aren’t going to find. (Trying to sell an editor your own version of the town council meeting story is the quickest way imaginable to be shown the door.)

Some examples: almost anything of historical importance that has a surprising twist. A freelancer once sold me a story recounting the time that Glens Falls changed its name–for 24 hours–to Glenn’s Orbit, in honor of John Glenn’s historic space flight. Another time I bought a story about a brave war veteran who had been honored with a statue. The surprising twist? The statue was of a horse that had courageously served our country.

freelancingThe first freelance story I ever sold was about the Busch Brewery–not the world-famous Anheuser-Busch Brewery in St. Louis, but the John B. Busch Brewery that was once operated in the small town of Washington, Missouri, by the less-successful brother of Anheuser-Busch’s founder.

Newspapers also like stories tied to holidays and particular seasons. Again, the focus must be local. Don’t write about the legend of St. Valentine–try a story about a couple in your own town who’ve been married for 50 years or more. For Mother’s Day, find a mother with seven children. I once sold a story, for instance, about one of George Washington’s visits to Massachusetts. Instead of focusing on one of the many houses he’s said to have slept in, I wrote about the time he was turned away by an innkeeper who didn’t recognize him. That story appeared on Washington’s Birthday.

Another tip: Most daily papers, and many weeklies, run bridal guides in the spring or summer. Try talking to ministers, wedding photographers, justices of the peace and caterers about wild wedding mishaps. A writer once turned in a story recounting the time that a wedding came to a halt after the priest told the groom that he could kiss the bride.

The groom didn’t understand English too well, so the clergyman puckered up his lips to show him what he meant. The groom smiled, nodded–and kissed the priest! I bought that story.

Stalking Your Prey

So, your story is local, has a twist, and is perhaps tied to a special time or season. Where do you find these good stories? It sounds like a cliche, but friends, relatives and neighbors really are the best source of story ideas. Once a freelancer was telling me about this wacky friend whose whole house, from rooftop to toilet-paper dispenser, was decorated as a miniature Christmas village. “So write about it,” I told her. It was a great story to run in the paper a week before Christmas.

My little brother once pointed the way to a good story. He was working in Kansas City as the manager of a comic book store. Every week, the store was selling hundreds of dollars’ worth of cards from a new game called Magic: The Gathering. This game was going to be bigger than Dungeons and Dragons, he told me. So I called the manufacturer, a company in a Seattle suburb, and got information about it.

But the story wasn’t local–I lived just outside of Boston. So I went to a comics store near Providence, Rhode Island, and wrote a story about how popular the game was there. Then I Went to a comics store in Worcester, Massachusetts, and did the same thing. I sold that story three times.

Besides other people, there are a great number of places to look for off-beat story ideas. Bulletin boards. Local historical societies. Phone books. There are two listings under “cryogenics” in my local yellow pages, for instance. I wonder what that’s all about.

Selling Your Prey

Once you capture that wild story and put it down on paper, how do you get it into print? The culture of a newspaper is different from that of a magazine–it’s faster-paced and more personal. Once you send your story, the editor will almost certainly want to talk with you face-to-face. After all, you’re most likely in the same city. Treat this meeting as an informal job interview. You don’t have to dress up–most editors don’t–but you do have to present yourself professionally.

Here are some other things to keep in mind:

Know the players. If you know anything about medieval kingdoms, you’re well on your way to understanding the management structure of most newspapers.

Think of the individual editors–the features editor, the sports editor, the local news editor–as dukes or duchesses who all answer to a central authority (the editor in chief), but who have great autonomy within their own small fiefdoms. If you think your story should be running in the features section, send it directly to the features editor.

If you don’t know who the features editor–or any other editor–is, call the main switchboard and ask. Newspaper editors are much more used to the idea of taking phone calls from their readers, so the switchboard operator may transfer you directly to an editor. In general, the smaller the paper, the more likely an editor is to talk with you. But realize that newspaper editors are under daily deadline pressure, and may not have time to talk at length.

Be aware also that different editors will have different reactions to a story. They have different taWs, and different budgets. Not every story is for every paper.

After I wrote about Champ, the legendary sea monster said to live in Lake Champlain, I was invited to watch the filming of an Unsolved Mysteries episode about Champ in Burlington, Vermont, where many sightings were reported.

The local paper in Burlington ran a short item, ridiculing the TV show and anyone who believed in sea monsters. My readers thought it was fun; the Burlington editors thought it was hokum. If one editor or one newspaper doesn’t buy your story, simply take it somewhere else.

Follow the rules. A short letter to an editor explaining who you are and why you’ve written the story you’re sending is sufficient. Include day and evening phone numbers–most newspaper editors work second shift. Always enclose SASE.

Be sure to discuss in your letter any personal relationship you may have with a subject that would affect the way you’ve written the story.

For instance, if you eat lunch occasionally at a diner that’s a community landmark, and you find out that the owner is planning to retire, it’s not a conflict of interest to write a story in which he reminisces about his 25 years of slinging hash. But if you’re buying the diner from him, that’s a conflict.

There are often different rules governing different types of writing in newspapers. Once, a freelancer quit after I told her that I wouldn’t pay her for an opinion piece she wanted to write. Most papers simply don’t pay for opinion essays and letters to the editor.

Pay attention to details. Facts are of paramount importance in newspaper stories. Newspapers don’t just insist on correct spellings of people’s names, they want the proper name and middle initials (Robert E. Lee, not Bob Lee). Newspaper editors want ages, job titles and street addresses of the people named in stories. Editors hate phrases such as “about 20 years ago.” That’s an invitation to an editor to call you at bedtime to ask whether it was 19 years or 21 years ago.

Sometimes, if your information is surprising, like the correspondence I turned up that convinced me George Washington was a flirt who enjoyed bantering with teenage girls, an editor will demand to check your sources.

If any of this sounds daunting, it shouldn’t. Newspapers are the easiest places to get published, and have a long tradition as a training ground for famous writers–Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, to name just two. Newspaper editors, though sometimes gruff and harried, are generally accessible. And most of them are willing to give some helpful advice to a novice, because that’s the way they started out themselves.

You won’t get rich writing for newspapers–pay can be as low as $25 per story–but it’s a great way to get those clips that help you build credibility, and can lead to future sales and perhaps even full-time writing jobs.

(As told by Nat Hentoff)

I had heard of Ursula Nordstrom – the legendary orchestrator of books for young readers – from a friend of mine, Maurice Sendak. But l never expected to hear from her.

One day in 1964, she called. Would I be interested in writing a children’s book for what was then Harper & Row? I demurred. I would have to make the words short, the ideas simple, and take care not to offend any librarian or parent. I would let this cup pass from me, I told her.

“Write what you want to write,” Ursula said. “Don’t censor yourself.”

The result was Jazz Country, a novel about a white high-school trumpeter trying to break into the black world of jazz. Published in 1965, it’s still being read, judging from letters I get from youngsters, and for reasons that are not clear to me, the book continues to be very popular in Japan.

Encouraged, I wrote other YA novels – among them, I’m Really Dragged but Nothing Gets Me Down, This School Is Driving Me Crazy (a title provided by my younger son), Does This School Have Capital Punishment? and The Day They Came to Arrest the Book.

What I particularly enjoyed was hearing from readers around the country. I’ve written a number of books for adults but seldom hear from anybody but reviewers. Kids, however, have strong opinions. “You didn’t make the father real.” “That book was about me. I get in trouble a lot, too.”

There was another response. The head of the children’s division at the New York Public Library told me that Jazz Country was the most stolen book in her collection. That was more satisfying to me than any prize.

I also learned a lot about censorship. At an International Reading Association conference in Chicago, two librarians from Atlanta told me how sad they were that This School Is Driving Me Crazy had just been banned in their district. Rambunctious boys with reading problems, they told me, had latched onto the novel, probably because the main character – a decent, intense boy – had problems “relating” from the time he woke up in the morning. (I’d had no intention of writing the book especially for such boys.)

The book was banned because some parents object to the use of damn and hell.

Others of my books have been challenged. Among them, The Day They Came to Arrest the Book, which tells of a concerted attack on Huckleberry Finn in a high school by black parents, feminists, and some Christian parents (Huck never goes to Sunday school and comes from a decidedly dysfunctional family). In Charlottesville, Virginia (a place not unknown to Thomas Jefferson), the book was attacked “because it offers inflammatory challenge to authoritarian roles.”

They got that right.

Over the years, I have been invited – because of my YA books – to speak at more than 20 state meetings of school librarians, media specialists, and public librarians. I learn a lot at those sessions about attempts, some of them successful, to remove books and other curriculum materials, and I then turn the information into columns for the Washington Post and the Village Voice. I also found that a sleep problem I was having was critical for me. It ended up with my finding out how to stop snoring, which was huge for me at the time when I first diagnosed myself with sleep apnea. I also find out that my other young adult books I wrote 25 and more years ago are still being checked out of libraries and talked about in classes. I can’t say that about most of my adult books.

In recent months, I’ve spoken to conferences of librarians in Illinois, Oregon, and upstate New York. Some of them ask when my next YA novel is coming, and at that point, I become the Ancient Mariner, telling them that no one wants to publish my next book. I’ve tried more than dozen publishers, including some who have my novels on their lists and keep sending me royalty checks. The last check was for almost $5,000 for two novels that by now have been out in the country for a long time.

What I tell librarians and media specialists is that I have been banned as a YA author because apparently today’s book publishers have become cautious as to certain issues that might create unpleasantness.

The novel for young readers that I want to write is based on what I’ve seen over 10 and more years in visits to middle and high schools and colleges in many cities. There is tribalism – bristling separatism – in the schools. There are black tables and white tables and Asian tables in the lunchrooms. The self-segregation continues at various school events and in classrooms. The result is that what Horace Mann called “the common school” is practically obsolete. The divisions and the bitter mythologies mirror the state of race relations on the outside. This is not education. It is pandering to prejudice on the part of school officials. Rather than learning how to break down these barriers, timid educators do not get involved in the separatism and thereby encourage it.

My novel about this deterioration of learning how to deal with differences will be – like my other books – partly comic and partly serious, disturbingly serious. It will not be a tract. No one willingly reads tracts. It is a story populated by a range of kids, black and white, who surprise themselves – and the writer – as the story goes on. I learned long ago that a novel that does not entertain will have a very brief life. This one will both entertain and get its readers into thinking, actually thinking, about what kind of people they are – and want to be.

Like any industry “buzz,” the talk surrounding The Golden Compass started out as a whisper. In this case the murmurs started when Levine, Pullman’s editor, sent the manuscript out for author quotes and received raves from Newbery Medalists Lloyd Alexander and Lois Lowry, as well as fantasy writer Terry Brooks. As Levine recalls, this was the moment when “people in-house really started to sit up and take note;’ And thanks to the company’s recent adoption of Lotus Notes technology (see Bookselling, Feb. 19), Levine was able to instantaneously post these tidbits to the entire company, thus spreading the good word even faster.

Terry Brooks’s recommendation of the book to his editor Veronica Chapman at Del Rey (Ballantine’s fantasy imprint) was, in Levine’s words, “an arrow into a completely different part of Random House.” Del Rey acquired the paperback rights to the entire trilogy, and the notion began to take shape that The Golden Compass might just be Pullman’s breakout book.

Meanwhile, at last fall’s New England Booksellers Association meeting, Carl Lennertz, director of marketing for the Knopf group, was “cornered…by two of the juvenile merchandise guys,” who insisted that he read Pullman’s latest novel. Though skeptical at first, Lennertz recalls being hooked by the book’s very first sentence. Yet another glowing Lotus Note was added to the book’s growing heap of electronic accolades. Even more significantly, Lennertz ordered 1000 readers’ copies to send to the independent booksellers and wholesalers who receive his highly regarded industry newsletter. In contrast to the lengthy letters that typically accompany highly touted new books, Lennertz says he included a note saying, simply, “Dear Bookseller: Be a kid again”

Lennertz also shared his enthusiasm for The Golden Compass in a phone conversation with Pat Johnson, v-p and publisher of Random House AudioBooks, who recalls that she “read the book in one night–and fully agreed with Carl. [The novel] was beautifully written, and…would work incredibly well on audio” In what Johnson describes as “a real departure” for the division, rights to the title were acquired, making it the first YA title other than the Everyman’s Library Children’s Classics that Random House AudioBooks has put on tape. In another unusual move, bookstore displays will feature both the audiotapes (aimed primarily at adults) and the books, which are expected to appeal to a mixed audience.

Some Simple but Fresh Ideas

Standing in piquant contrast to the high-tech dazzle of the Lotus Notes-driven cyber-chatter, a resolutely low-tech communication strategy was put into play as well. By every elevator on every floor of the Random House offices, there appeared photocopied flyers inviting all employees to pick up their own complimentary reader’s copy of The Golden Compass and see for themselves what all the talk was about.

Adding still further to the flurry of excitement surrounding the novel, not only was it chosen as an alternate selection by Children’s Book-of-the-Month Club, but–operating under the assumption that it will appeal to the adults who have made such a success of the company’s editions of the Tolkien books and the recently redesigned Narnia boxed set–The Golden Compass is an Alternate Selection for Book-of-the-Month Club as well as a QPB Selection. What’s more, BOMC’s recently founded New Age-oriented book dub, One Spirit, has picked up the book, and plans to feature the novel on the back cover of its catalogue this spring. Along with being a vote of confidence in the book’s prospects, BOMC’s decision itself has become a part of the industry buzz. As Steve Geck, executive editor of CBOMC explains, sales reps have told him that the fact that the book is a BOMC selection has become “a key selling point.”

Getting the book into the hands of the rest of the influential booksellers, reviewers and librarians was another vital task. To this end, the company produced a handsome advance reader’s edition, complete with a cutaway flap filed with quotes culled from the book’s early author reviews. And, while print runs of 1000 to 1500 are typical of the quantity of review copies produced for the average YA title, Random House had 7000 copies printed.

This elegant packaging was not lost on its intended audience. In the words of Geck at CBMOC, “It wasn’t just a galley. It was a very impressive edition. When a company does that, it means they’re taking a book seriously. And we respond to that.”

But attractiveness was not the only element that made the reader’s copies stand out from the crowd. Tucked into many–though not all–of the editions was what the folks at Knopf came to call a “buzz card”: a postcard offering readers the opportunity to have a free copy of the book sent to a friend, “with your regards.” This way, early readers had the pleasure of giving a gift (for the price of a postcard stamp) while helping Random House get the book in the hands of an ever-widening audience. What’s more, because readers are likely to have an excellent idea just which of their friends would most enjoy The Golden Compass, the book ends up with a hand-picked audience that’s almost guaranteed to respond favorably. Thus, long before the book arrived in the stores, advance readers participated in a highly personalized version of what booksellers know as “hand-selling.” As of this writing, approximately 500 buzz cards have been sent in.

Developed in the course of a conversation between Knopf and Crown Books for Young Readers marketing manager Suzanne Murphy and the division’s publishing director Simon Boughton, the buzz card is a marketing strategy that’s simple and fresh. Just how fresh? Says Murphy, “I hesitate to say that this is the first time somebody’s done [a buzz card], but people tend to react to it as a new thing.”

And the buzz cards did indeed make a splash. In the words of Jean Getzel, children’s coordinator of Anderson’s Bookshops, Naperville, Ill., “You’re able to have all your staff members read the book and also anyone else who is interested. It stirs up excitement.” And while “you don’t want to give away too many…[receiving a reader's edition] makes the customer feel special.”

A Way to a Retailer’s Heart

But the buzz cards were hardly the only innovative technique employed to draw attention to The Golden Compass. In an unusual move this past January, the company brought Pullman to this country for a pre-publication tour, in which the author met and spoke with booksellers and librarians at a series of relatively small-scale (no more than 15-20 people, not including Random House staff) dinners and lunches at elegant restaurants across the country.

Included in the tour was a stop at the ALA midwinter conference in San Antonio. As a ploy to bring The Golden Compass to the attention of influential librarians, it was most effective. As conference attendee and children’s literature consultant Connie Rockman explains, “Midwinter is basically a working conference. So it really stood out to have an author there.” Rockman commends Randora’s decision to bring Pullman “to places where he could meet professionals in the field.”

And the fact that Pullman is such an easygoing, personable fellow makes him an ideal candidate for this sort of tour. Despite the inevitable pressures of a hectic schedule (eight cities coast to coast in a mere 12 days), the friendly author seems to have left a favorable impression wherever he went. Says Rockman, “He was so interested in everybody he met. He wanted to know who we were, and what we were all about.”

“We cannot permit young adult literature to be silenced,” writes Michael Cart in From Romance to Realism: 50 Years of Growth and Change in Young Adult Literature (Harper). His study celebrates the history and the glories of adolescent literature but also takes a hard look at the current controversies and crises in publishing for young adults. Among the issues Cart examines are the rise of romance and horror paperbacks, multiculturalism, the need for more honest fiction about sexual identity and AIDS, and the general need for risk-taking fiction for an at-risk generation. But Cart’s overarching theme is the demise of novels for older YAs and the potential demise of all quality young adult fiction.

One of the most perceptive and knowledgeable observers of the YA literary scene, Michael Cart brings to this book a lifetime of immersion in the practicalities of publishing, buying, and promoting young adult literature. His career as the director of the Beverly Hills Public Library brought him closely in touch with the needs of young patrons, and his long involvement with the American Library Association has given him access to editors and writers and the behind-the-scenes world of publishing. His column of YA commentary in Booklist consistently brings fresh insight to librarians, and last year he published two other books of literary criticism, Presenting Robert Lipsyte for Twayne’s Young Adult Author series and What’s So Funny?: Wit and Humor in American Children’s Literature (Harper).

Cart himself admits that a comparison is inevitable between From Romance to Realism and the longtime definitive work in the field, Literature for Today’s Young Adults (Harper) by Alleen Pace Nilsen and Kenneth L. Donelson. The latter has a pedagogic orientation – suggestions for class assignments and so on – and aims at a comprehensive but sober and objective analysis. Cart’s book, on the other hand, is impassioned and personal, and very much of the moment – qualities that are supremely appropriate for a book dealing with adolescent literature. For the most part Cart limits himself to fiction; Nilsen and Donelson include nonfiction, poetry, and drama. Literature for Today’s Young Adults has managed to stay on top of changing developments since 1980 with frequent new editions; and while the up-to-the-minute topicality of From Romance to Realism is its strength, it may ultimately weaken the book by dating it. Yet Cart’s work will appeal not only to the college students reading Nilsen and Donelson’s textbook but also to working professionals, especially the increasing number of library generalists who suddenly find themselves assigned – without any background – to work with young adults.

The dimension of From Romance to Realism that may allow the book to reach beyond professionals to the general public is the wit and elegance of the writing. Cart has a talent for the apt phrase, the delightfully oblique spin on an idea. As a sesquipedalian stylist, he can throw a word like eponymous into a sentence without missing a beat. But more, the book is disarmingly personal and conversational, often even idiosyncratic. Cart lists the four great themes of YA literature as alienation, sex, violence, and what Richard Peck calls “the tribalizing of the young.” Cart also invites controversy with his reaction to the sacred idea of popularity as a criterion for inclusion on ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults list: “I think that if popularity is to be a major consideration, then we might as well declare R. L. Stine and Francine Pascal to be the greatest young-adult authors of the century and have done with it.- But it is as a literary critic that Cart excels. Unlike Nilsen and Donelson, he makes little attempt at brief annotations on a large number of books, choosing instead extended and discerning analysis of a select few authors and works that illustrate his points.

From Romance to Realism is structured in two parts, labeled (in a sly allusion to an S. E. Hinton novel) “That Was Then” and “This Is Now.” Living up to the promise of the book’s subtitle, the first section traces the history of the genre. Cart begins with the obligatory wrestling with the origin and definition of the terms “young adult” and “young adult literature.” He agrees with Margaret Edwards that “it was in 1942 that the new field of writing for teenagers became established” with the publication of Maureen Daly’s Seventeenth Summer (Putnam), a book that Cart admits is seminal but faults for being “glacially slow” and sexist.

After a brief look at the trivial romances by Daly’s imitators of the fifties and early sixties, Cart moves on to the landmark year of 1967, when S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (Viking) – and a spate of influential essays – marked the rise of the new realism. Although Cart grants that Hinton is, as Richard Peck has called her, the “mother” of young adult authors, he finds The Outsiders to be “an odd hybrid: part realistic novel and part romantic fantasy that, at its self-indulgent worst, exemplifies . .. morbid adolescent romanticism.” Of the two other books that are generally agreed to be the models for the genre, Cart praises J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (Little) as “a marvel of sustained style and tone,” but considers Paul Zindel’s The Pigman (Harper) improbable and contrived. Instead, he suggests Robert Lipsyte’s The Contender (Harper) as a more viable model.

Realism, however, “would be an uphill battle … for not only are young adults inherent romantics, they are inherent reality deniers, too.” During the seventies, literary taboos were broken in subject matter and language, but the initial impulse toward realism soon deteriorated into the “problem novel,” in which the social issue “too often became the tail that wagged the dog.” Much of the new realism of these years celebrates “conventional morality and an insistence on happy resolution,” says Cart. “This kind of manipulation transforms realism into romance.” By contrast, Cart offers Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (Pantheon), which he names “the single most important title in the history of young adult literature to date,” and the undeservedly forgotten novels of John Donovan.

The eighties brought a resurgence of the romance novel, which Cart sees as a throwback to the “junior novels” of the sixties. He documents the “adult, handwringing response” to this phenomenon and finds the real reason for the success of the paperback romance accurately described by Pamela Pollack in School Library Journal: “Mass market paperback publishers gave teens what they ‘want’ as determined by market research, rather than what they ‘need’ based on their problems as reflected by social statistics.” This same attitude later gave birth to the overwhelming publishing commitment to young-adult horror paperbacks and other series.

In spite of this trend, a number of important new voices were beginning to be heard in the eighties. Changing immigration patterns created a need for fiction drawn from a wide range of cultures and ethnicity, and writers began to respond. But the multicultural movement is not without its problems. Cart describes the academic revolt against reverence for classics by dead white European male authors, and poses the insiderversus-outsider controversy in the unanswerable question, “Can a writer’s imagination be powerful enough to create a viable work of fiction about a culture the writer has observed only from the outside?” Cart also deplores the dearth of Latino fiction for young adults, noting that “the Hispanic-American experience .. may be the most underexplored in young adult literature,” in spite of the prediction that Hispanic Americans may comprise a fifth of the U.S. population by 2050. He asserts that not only do young people need to see their own culture reflected in books, both in English and their own languages, but that “‘established’ Americans … urgently need a crash course in understanding the new crazy quilt of cultures covering them in the nineties.”

Today YA has become a literature at risk, Cart posits, or at least in turmoil. A key factor is the commercial success of horror and other genre paperbacks. Although “the popularity of genre series is perhaps the most durable phenomenon in the ongoing history of publishing for young readers,” the difference now is that the market is teenagers themselves, via chain bookstores in shopping malls. “This is tremendously important, because it is now the buyers for the chains – not librarians, not educators, and not psychologists – who dictate how we define ‘young adults.”‘ These marketers have defined YAs as eleven to fourteen years old, and publishers must follow; thus “fifteen-to-eighteen-year-old readers have become the endangered species.” Furthermore, chain bookstores limit their stock for YAs to the most profitable series paperbacks. Independent bookstores, which manage to maintain a durable market for hardcover YA novels through hand-selling, are threatened increasingly by the growth of superstores and chains. And the conglomeratization of publishers means that people with no background in book publishing are now in charge; profit is all-important and the “product” has replaced the book in their thinking. Cart sees a glimmer of hope in niche publishing and the whole-language movement in schools, although the declining number of quality hardcover YA titles and the declining number of professionals trained to select them, as well as the budget crisis in schools and libraries, do not augur well for the future of the literature.

When I look at Jericho (Greenwillow) now, it seems self-contained, complete, orderly, as if it were always intended to be just as it is today. I’m tempted to forget how much time, how much doubt and indecision and loss of direction are part of this story’s history. When I look at other people’s books, the same temptation threatens. In the bookstore, or the library, or in front of the bulging shelves in our little office up on campus, I flirt with the notion that each of these stories must have sprung clear and complete into the author’s head. Then, I think, the author took her pencil or typewriter or word processor and simply transferred the story to paper and voila! There it was. But of course I know better.

I have been, still am, a teacher. We teachers have learned to be mindful of the process of writing, not just the product. And the process isn’t just the putting of words on paper, but the starts and stops, the waiting and thinking – everything it takes to get it done. The process of writing Jericho took an extraordinarily long time, or so it seemed to me.

First there was the prewriting. I don’t know just how pre I ought to be. I might go back as far as when I was a little girl, not yet able to write or read but determined to create my own stories, so I made them up and spoke them aloud to myself. There were always beginnings and middles, never an end. I was known among my older brother’s friends as “that kid who talks to herself.”

Or I could tell you about my very first written story, when I was seven. It did have an ending. It was titled “A Cowgirl Romance,” and in it, a little western beauty rode in pursuit of a Roy Rogers look-alike. I can still quote the last sentence: “They got married and had twins and they owed it all to Uncle Bill.” It was years before I understood why my parents laughed.

But I should stick to the point. In the summer of 1980, I had finished my Ph.D. and, with the summer off from my part-time teaching at Ohio State, was busy writing a book for children, which was eventually published as The Thunder-Pup (Macmillan). I know that it’s customary to talk about one’s work as if it really represents what’s going on in one’s life. But like working people everywhere, and especially working women, I lived, and still live, a parallel life in my family as wife, mother, daughter — a variety of consuming, often conflicting roles.

That summer my husband and I had a daughter just short of thirteen, a son two years older, and, in the tiny town where I grew up, half an hour from home, an old house that needed cleaning, scraping, painting, wallpapering — you name it. We spent almost every weekend that summer plugging away at one grungy job after another. The house had been in my family for generations and had come to us by way of my maternal grandmother, who some years before had moved a hundred yards down the road to live with my father and mother.

That summer Grandma was ninety-one, wheelchair-bound, plagued by several life-threatening ailments, and confused about almost everything. She thought someone had somehow hidden her familiar hometown, the very place where we were all spending so much time that summer. “I don’t know what they’ve done with it,” she said to me one day in real bewilderment. And it must indeed have seemed gone to her. She had grown up there at the turn of the last century when, like so many other little villages in the Midwest, it was known by a name from the Bible — in this case, Eden. It must have been a very different place, that Eden.

Grandma couldn’t recognize everyone in the family that summer. She knew our son, called him by name, lit up in a smile whenever he came near. She couldn’t remember our daughter from one minute to the next. “Who was that girl?” she would say to me. We all worried. My mother wanted to continue to take care of her, but Mother was herself no longer young. How could she keep on with such a physically and emotionally demanding task?

Now and again when I had a break from the wallpaper sizing and Grandma was napping, Mother and I would sit at the kitchen table and go over the snatches of stories we knew about Grandma’s childhood.

She was about five years old when her mother died, and one of her earliest memories was looking in her mother’s casket and noticing the scissors that had been used to trim a memorial flower. She didn’t tell, and the scissors were buried with her mother.

Grandma was the baby of a large family. After her mother died, several relatives and friends offered to take her as their own little girl. Instead, a sister who was fourteen or fifteen mothered the family as best she could, until the year she had a son of her own to look after.

One of Grandma’s brothers had the end of his finger chopped off on a dare that backfired. She couldn’t bear to look at the scarred stump of it. When he wanted an extra piece of pie for breakfast — he always had pie for breakfast — he would just touch Grandma’s share with the offending finger, and she would quickly hand it over.

Grandma and her nearest-age sister, as young women, both worked in a hotel in a bigger town nearby. They were offered the jobs when the hotel housekeeper saw them meticulously putting wet lace curtains on a stretcher frame in their yard. The sister was chosen to wait tables in the dining room. Grandma cleaned rooms and emptied chamber pots — but not happily.

After the hotel, she did cooking and housework for a farm family that needed to hire help. Later, when she married a man several years her senior, the reason she gave was this: “If I have to work in a kitchen, it might as well be my own.”

These stories were some comfort to me. Talking about them reminded me that there was more to my grandmother than a bent shape in a wheelchair. But I do not think the stories were any comfort to her, not at least on any conscious level. They belonged to another time. I would ask her now and then about something specific in the past, and she would only say, “I don’t remember.”

Eventually the old house was refurbished and rented, school began, my children were released from weekend bondage to the custody of their friends at home, and life resumed its familiar outlines. But Grandma continued to fail. Before the next summer came, she was buried in the hillside cemetery where her father, my great-grandfather, had once been the caretaker.

That’s only the prologue. It took me more than ten years to draft the story inspired by all of this. At first I didn’t intend to write anything with a real shape to it. In the beginning what came out on paper was simply therapy by typewriter. Although Grandma’s death was expected, even anticipated as an earned release, I couldn’t get her out of my mind. I would sometimes see her face as I tried to sleep, would sometimes dream about her. Once in a dream she stood in a shower of snow, waving her apron and shouting — but there was no sound. I began to think more and more about what a powerful force she had been in my growing-up years, how loving and proud she had been, and sometimes how very difficult. What could shape such a person, I wondered.

I began to make a few notes about the stories that my mother and I had shared. Midnight was my writing time. I wasn’t thinking too clearly by that hour, so it was something more dreamed than planned that came scrolling up out of my old Smith Corona electric. There on the page was a little girl named Arminda (a name I had seen on a nineteenth-century document), her slightly older sister Lucy, their half-grown sister Delia, and their older brothers — all gathered for supper with their father on an evening not long after their mother’s death. After almost a dozen years of fussing and rewriting, that piece stands almost word for word in Jericho as first written.

On another night I wrote myself a bit of the here and now, the family of descendants struggling to get the aged Arminda’s house in order. That was harder. I continued to write in chunks of two or three or four pages. Some were inspired by the stories of my grandmother’s childhood. But I also found myself writing from the viewpoint of a character in my generation and my mother’s, and my daughter’s. All four perspectives felt necessary. I felt that in some way I could be all four of those characters. Maybe we all have a sense of how our own lives change, so that we look back on our past or ahead to our future as if they were other lives, our own selves as other persons. A reader in North Carolina wrote to tell me of Naomi Lowinsky’s concept of the “Motherline” — the notion that four generations of women in a family are an especially powerful conduit of influence and ideas. Maybe.

At any rate, I wrote, always at night. There didn’t seem to be any time during the day. Some nights I was simply too tired, and eventually I was always too tired. The beginnings of Jericho lay fallow for several years while I thought about writing other books, but didn’t.

Then, sometimes after I became a regular faculty member at Ohio State University, my colleague Diane DeFord and I convinced each other that we should offer a seminar on writing for children. It was to be essentially a writing course, and we wanted people to write and to offer their own work for group comment. “We’ll have to build trust,” we said. “One of us will have to go first.” That’s when I remembered that I had something on the shelf at home.

So the first pieces of the Jericho manuscript, still untitled, came to class. Surely the most effective motivation for a writer is a genuinely appreciative audience. The responses of those seminar students prompted me to begin adding pieces to the story and to begin thinking seriously about troublesome things like sequence and plot. And from that summer seminar a small monthly writers’ group was born that still meets and is still a major source of support for me, especially when it comes to sleep apnea, what is commonly known as a sleep disorder. I think I never really know how I would stop snoring, I just assumed it wasn’t a problem – but when it began to affect my waking life, I decided I needed some kind of sleeping remedy, or I would perish.

It’s embarrassing to have to admit that with all that encouragement I didn’t charge immediately forward. At a conference somewhere, I chatted with an author about wanting to find time to write. He looked at me sternly and said, “Anyone who really wants to write makes time to do it.” I was secretly furious. I’m always furious when someone tells me a difficult truth. I muttered things under my breath like, “If I had a wife, I’d have time to write, too.” But still the writing didn’t happen. Other commitments seemed just too pressing.

The always classic Virginia Hamilton.

I have to thank my colleague Rudine Sims Bishop for bringing Virginia Hamilton to our campus as a Distinguished Visiting Professor in 1988. Virginia offered a seminar each quarter for students interested in her work and in writing their own. I managed to find time to sit in during the first term; the second quarter I had a schedule conflict. When Virginia announced she would work with students interested in writing novels during the spring term, I declared my intention to sit in again. One of the fall quarter students heard me. “Listen,” she said, “you’re a published author and you sat there in the fall and listened to us and never shared anything. I don’t think it’s fair.” Difficult truths again. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll write.”

I dusted off the manuscript, read it through, and made some decisions. I realized that I couldn’t really give equal representation to voices from all four generations in my story. For one thing, balancing that many perspectives was a juggling act beyond my skill. For another, there seemed to be no natural audience for such a story. But if I focused on the great-granddaughter and the great-grandmother, I thought, Arminda’s story might find a home in children’s and adolescent literature. I would go back and start at the beginning and alternate between the youngest and the oldest voices. I kept much of what I had already written about Arminda’s childhood, transferring my typescript to a computer disk as I went, because by this time I had taught myself to compose on screen. I rewrote most of what focused on the great-granddaughter and added a few new sections. Virginia Hamilton’s response to this effort was tremendously encouraging. I was energized by the new focus I had found and by the possibilities that began to crop up for connections between the two layers of story.