December 15, 2022
by Leah Henderson, faculty, writing for children and young adults
Since 2017, when my first novel, One Shadow on the Wall, was published, I have been trying to find a healthy footing in the writing world, and in particular the kidlit publishing space. Along the way, I have learned a few things that may be helpful to consider and remember for anyone pursuing a career in writing.
1. You can’t control what you can’t control. Well, of course you can’t, but before becoming a full-time writer I never really thought about things that way. Yes, a lot is out of our control in life, but I guess I always had a more “half-full” approach to things. Basically, there could be a way through or around, and it usually started with me putting my head down, figuring out a solution, then studying and working to make it happen. I was taught that if you do the work, everything will work itself out. And while I still believe this to a certain extent, I also know that everything we hope for in the traditional publishing world—for ourselves and our books—might not come our way (or at least not the way we want it to). And you know what, that’s okay, because as the “half-full” part of me believes, something even better might be around the next corner.
2. Focus on what you can control. Another no-brainer! But I’m almost ashamed to say how often I’ve needed to remind myself of this from time to time. While no longer stressing over things I cannot control has done wonders for my mental (and physical) wellbeing, focusing on what I can control has helped me keep writing. I can control the words I chose, the stories I tell, and most importantly, the way I tell them. When I sit down to write, it is just me and the page, no one else (okay, characters too), but at that point there are no expectations (I’m listening to) but my own.
And while things rarely ever turn out the way I envisioned before I started, I can work on my words till I get them to a place where I feel good about writing them, saying them, and sharing them. And once that happens, then I have to take a VERY deep breath and be okay with letting some level of that control go, because I cannot control who will understand my words, need my words, disagree with my words, or who’ll simply ignore them. All I can do is control that they ever got written and be proud of that. And hope that someday they will reach the readers they are meant to reach.
3. Learn to be kind to you. Again, we should all know this. But there are so many times and so many ways that we are not kind to ourselves. We are often our harshest critics. We are unforgiving of our own mistakes. Or our need to take a rest, walk away, or even reach out for help. We need to remember that taking care of and being kind to ourselves is the only way we’ll get through this thing called publishing with more smiles than tears—maybe.
4. Learn when and what to say “yes” and “no” to. Opportunities or distractions? There are so many paths to take and directions to go when trying to get published, and none of us have a crystal ball when it comes to which are the most important, which will get us an agent or attention from a literary magazine or a publisher. Then, once published, which will increase book sales, garner more speaking engagements, or get our work shared far and wide. Yes, there are definitely some places and opportunities that are not to be missed, but for most of us, there are lots of moments where what we should been doing is writing, not moving this way or that—lots of moments that we should be sitting still and focusing on the next word.
Then there are other times, where book sales might not increase, but the opportunity may fill our creative well or help us to say, “I got this. Keep swimming.” We don’t always know when these life-shifting/life-building moments will happen, but as we get to know more about the writing world and about ourselves (and what we need at different times), these moments of “yes” and “no” become easier to recognize and make.
5. Learn you. This one may take a bit of time. Learn what you really want when it comes to your writing and the publishing world. It is different for everyone. Then work towards that. Focus on the things that you can control that will bring you closer to that want or hope. And when you come upon a hard decision that might pit you against that hope or dream, you have a compass; you have a direction. Yes, sometimes compromise is needed, but not on the most important things—the things that help you sleep, hold your head high, and fill your heart and well. Remember those things in moments of doubt. They will help guide you through.
6. Bonus: Embrace your community. The writing community (especially here at Spalding) is rich with friendship, knowledge, and support. Actively engage in it, because the people you meet within these spaces are the ones who will get you through the stumbles and rocky moments, and celebrate you with the sincerest applause and/or tears. We don’t have to do this thing alone. Find your people, and be open to letting them find you!
Keep swimming, everyone!
Leah Henderson is a writer, mentor, and believer in all people seeing their possibilities and genius. She has written several critically acclaimed books for young readers, including The Magic in Changing Your Stars, Daddy Speaks Love, Together We March, and the forthcoming The Courage of the Little Hummingbird.