came to children’s literature from a writer’s perspective and got involved at Andrea Brown Literary Agency to see what it was like “on the other side of the desk.” In her quest to learn all sides of publishing, she has also worked in the children’s editorial department at Chronicle Books and has recently earned her MFA in creative writing at the University of San Francisco. She also has a fabulous blog, www.kidlit.com
Since this blog is about offering inspiration to writers and artists, my first question for you is, do you have a favorite quote?
My favorite writing quote comes from legendary editor Ursula Nordstrom, who worked for Harper & Row (now HarperCollins) in the 50s and published what we think of as the classics, from RUNAWAY BUNNY to CHARLOTTE’S WEB to WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. She said:
“The writer of books about the real world has to dig deep and tell the truth.”
You just finished classes for your MFA in creative writing. Was there a professor that left an impression on you in a big way? If so, what did they do that was so different from the others?
I’m an extremely practical person, and an MFA isn’t exactly a practical degree, unless you want to teach at the university level. Other than that, it is more of a self-enrichment experience and a study of craft. Sometimes, all this lovey-dovey craft talk and no focus on the business end of publishing—where I’d been employed ever since I started the program—drove me a bit batty.
My two favorite professors, middle-grade and adult author Lewis Buzbee and adult author Kate Brady, married craft discussions with a great no-BS attitude that I really appreciated. If there was something wrong with a piece of writing, they weren’t afraid to say it, they weren’t afraid to say why, and they weren’t afraid to evangelize revision. I think the best writing teachers are inspiring but not shy to tell students when something isn’t working. In my own writing and with my clients, I love growth and change and learning. And that often involves cutting and revision. The most successful writers love the play and exploration involved in hearing the truth, getting mad, getting excited and rolling their sleeves up to edit and refine (usually in that order).
How many manuscripts have you completed? Which one would you like to have published first and why?
Ha! I’m a very slow learner in my own writing life. In fact, I had an agent at one point and we had a manuscript go out on submission and not sell. When that happened, I started reading for an agency because I wanted to learn and see what other writers were doing and what agents were seeing. If I hadn’t been so eager to learn after my experience on submission, I never would’ve ended up at Andrea Brown!
So I use manuscripts as learning experiences. I have six full drawer manuscripts that will probably never see the light of day again, and a few partials that I started but never finished. Sometimes, a manuscript helps you figure out an element of craft and then it outlives its usefulness. It’s okay, great even, to put that work away because, in the grand scheme of things, it has served a purpose and is very valuable to your growth.
The one I’m working on right now, though, is the first one I’ve really felt differently about. This is one I’d like to see out there because I think I’ve finally got all the gears working right. If it doesn’t sell, though, I’ll do what I’ve always done and start the next one.
What did you want to be growing up? Now that you’re an agent/writer did this come as a surprise?
I’ve always worked with words and come from a very creative family. My mom’s talent is fine art painting. Unfortunately, that must’ve skipped a generation. My dad’s talent is film and acting. One of my college degrees was in theatre but that was more of an intellectual interest—I wasn’t a very good actor, either. But somehow all that creativity made me good with words and language. I published my first story (in the Humane Society newsletter, to mark the passing of a beloved pet) when I was 11 and have been writing steadily since. Not only do I love writing, though, but I really do love the concepts behind the craft of the novel, talking to writers, teaching, giving workshops, building relationships with editors, pitching projects I’m passionate about, the business side of publishing, and all of the other fun perks of being an agent, not just a writer.
How do you encourage your clients when they’re having moments of self-doubt?
There is so much rejection in this business. Even well-published authors face it all the time. I tell my writers to develop healthy self-esteem in regards to the pitfalls they’ll encounter in their careers. The act of writing is deeply personal but the business of publishing isn’t. At all. Success in this industry takes talent, sure, but it takes perseverance, grit, a sense of humor and a stream of ideas that doesn’t dry up. My clients have all that in spades—or they wouldn’t be my clients! Sometimes it just takes a reminder and a pep talk…and, yeah, sometimes it takes a drink. But tomorrow is another day and another chance for someone to fall in love with their writing as much as I have.
Are there ever times you feel your creative spark dying? If so, how do you light it back up?
The only thing that ever stops me, creatively, is a lack of time. I’m always busy growing my list and working on behalf of my clients, even now that my MFA is done. That’s just the way I like it but my work sometimes takes to the back burner.
Since I’m here to give advice, though, I will say this: don’t give yourself the luxury (or the crutch) of believing in writer’s block. A lot of the time, a block happens when you don’t know what to do next or when you’re approaching an ambitious part in your writing. It’s usually easier to avoid it than to plow through, but don’t be intimidated. Challenge yourself. Take that risk and keep writing, even when you want to stop. If you’re stuck in a specific place, skip it and move on to the next thing you know for sure. Professional writers show up at the page every single day, even if it feels like pulling teeth and the results aren’t that great. Writer’s block is for people who have lots of time to have long, tortured conversations with their muses. I’m too busy for it. Work expands to the amount of time you have for it. If you have your whole life to write a novel, you’ll spend an awful lot of your time blocked or contemplating sunsets and baby ducks. And who’s got time for that?
Don’t rely on a creative spark or inspiration. Get in the habit of writing, in the habit of creating, and your brain will get itself in the habit of supplying the words and the new ideas, automatically. Creativity is very much an unconscious process that you can train. Life’s too short to wait around for some kind of spark. You sit down and you make it happen. And if today’s spark fizzles out, try again tomorrow. The worst thing you can do is wallow and lose time…that’s a self-defeating cycle.
If you could pick one word to describe yourself, what would it be?
Thank you for the great interview Mary and for creating Kidlit.com! I know many writers who’ve learned so much from you (including myself) and are very thankful for all the guidance you give. You’re loved by many!
If you would like to find out more about Mary please visit her incredible blog or the amazing agency she works for, Andrea Brown Literary Agency, Inc.