Tuesday, February 19, 2019

How to Write and Publish--6--Literary Ideals vs. Sending Beth and Marmee to the Seaside

Before we climb that mountain of submitting our work to magazines, let’s go on a side trail that needs to be hiked.
I needed money.

It was 1987. We were volunteering at a boarding high school for Native American students in the wild northern reaches of Ontario. We were expecting our second child, and I wanted a new car seat for this baby.

For our oldest, we had bought a secondhand car seat that was all awkward straps and buckles that invariably woke up little Matthew when he was strapped in or taken out. Plus, it was so outdated it probably wouldn’t have protected him much in a crash.

So I wanted a fresh dreamy modern car seat with one strap that pulled down over the baby’s head and clicked into place.

However: we didn’t have money. We received a stipend of about $60 a month. We had to buy our own clothes, diapers, peanut butter, postage stamps, shampoo, and transportation to visit family back in the U.S.

The Ontario Health Plan paid for our medical care. So we could afford to have a baby, but we couldn’t afford a car seat, which was going to cost about $75.

I had a small child and we were 125 miles from the nearest town, so employment opportunities were nonexistent.

Maybe I could write!

Paul sent a memo to Merle Burkholder out at the mission headquarters: was it legal for me to write for a US publisher under our current work status in Canada?

Merle said yes!

I was familiar with the Sunday school papers from Christian Light Publications, so they were an obvious choice. I think I wrote to CLP and asked for their writers’ guidelines, because somehow I knew to center the title halfway down the first page and repeat it at the top of subsequent pages.

I sat in our cold little closet at the end of the house, typed out three stories from my personal experience, extrapolated a lesson from each, and mailed them to Harrisonburg, Virginia.

CLP bought them all!!!!!!!!! They sent me a check for each!!!!!!! I had enough money for a car seat!!!!!!!!

Yes, I kept and framed that first acceptance slip, and it hangs on my office wall.
On a trip out to town, we bought a big new car seat that would last from the newborn stage to toddlerhood. It came in a big box. Did I mention it was new? And it had a handy dandy strap and buckle that could slide down over the baby’s head and click neatly into place. I can still see the pretty upholstery—a streaked blue and gray.

I paid for it with money I had earned from writing.

Perhaps you’ve caught the hint that this was a big moment in my life.

That car seat served us until it burned up along with the rest of the van in 1994. Emily was sitting in it that night. Matt, hearing her cry because of the smoke, went back and unbuckled that nifty buckle, raised the strap, released her, and brought her to safety.

The car seat was worth every penny I earned and spent.

I recall feeling that I was trying a bit too hard to manipulate a good lesson from my story that would work for a Sunday school paper, but that was the only qualm I felt about writing for the publisher I chose, for pay.

Maybe you also need to earn money, but you struggle to reconcile your ideals of Excellence and Art and Literature with catering to a magazine’s lowbrow readers so you can pay the bills. If so, you’re not alone.

Here’s an excerpt from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women:

Six weeks is a long time to wait, and a still longer time for a girl to keep a secret, but Jo did both, and was just beginning to give up all hope of ever seeing her manuscript again, when a letter arrived which almost took her breath away, for on opening it, a check for a hundred dollars fell into her lap. For a minute she stared at it as if it had been a snake, then she read her letter and began to cry. If the amiable gentleman who wrote that kindly note could have known what intense happiness he was giving a fellow creature, I think he would devote his leisure hours, if he has any, to that amusement, for Jo valued the letter more than the money, because it was encouraging, and after years of effort it was so pleasant to find that she had learned to do something, though it was only to write a sensation story.

A prouder young woman was seldom seen than she, when, having composed herself, she electrified the family by appearing before them with the letter in one hand, the check in the other, announcing that she had won the prize. Of course there was a great jubilee, and when the story came everyone read and praised it, though after her father had told her that the language was good, the romance fresh and hearty, and the tragedy quite thrilling, he shook his head, and said in his unworldly way...

"You can do better than this, Jo. Aim at the highest, and never mind the money."

"I think the money is the best part of it. What will you do with such a fortune?" asked Amy, regarding the magic slip of paper with a reverential eye.

"Send Beth and Mother to the seaside for a month or two," answered Jo promptly.

To the seaside they went, after much discussion, and though Beth didn't come home as plump and rosy as could be desired, she was much better, while Mrs. March declared she felt ten years younger. So Jo was satisfied with the investment of her prize money, and fell to work with a cheery spirit, bent on earning more of those delightful checks. She did earn several that year, and began to feel herself a power in the house, for by the magic of a pen, her `rubbish' turned into comforts for them all. The Duke's Daughter paid the butcher's bill, A Phantom Hand put down a new carpet, and the Curse of the Coventrys proved the blessing of the Marches in the way of groceries and gowns.

We note that Father, being an artistic soul, says, “Aim at the highest, and never mind the money.” But then, he can’t afford to send Beth and Marmee to the seaside.

Later, this happens. 

Little notice was taken of her stories, but they found a market, and encouraged by this fact, she resolved to make a bold stroke for fame and fortune. Having copied her novel for the fourth time, read it to all her confidential friends, and submitted it with fear and trembling to three publishers, she at last disposed of it*, on condition that she would cut it down one third, and omit all the parts which she particularly admired.

"Now I must either bundle it back in to my tin kitchen to mold, pay for printing it myself, or chop it up to suit purchasers and get what I can for it. Fame is a very good thing to have in the house, but cash is more convenient, so I wish to take the sense of the meeting on this important subject," said Jo, calling a family council.

"Don't spoil your book, my girl, for there is more in it than you know, and the idea is well worked out. Let it wait and ripen," was her father's advice, and he practiced what he preached, having waited patiently thirty years for fruit of his own to ripen, and being in no haste to gather it even now when it was sweet and mellow.

*pretty sure that means it was accepted for publication

Once again we note Father prioritizing the perfection of the book over selling it now.

You will always have people who accuse you of not “aiming at the highest.” Maybe you don’t tell them you had a story in Companions because they mock CLP for being so conservative, Mennonite, and formulaic, and for not using the word “kids.” Maybe you have your own misgivings because they changed the little girl’s pajamas to a nightgown, as they did in my story.

One person accused me of selling out because I wrote for a secular newspaper and I wasn’t allowed to preach the Gospel in my column.

Another one gently chided me for consistently tying the endings of my newspaper columns into a neat bow. He likes to read the New Yorker, that elite literary magazine, where stories don’t have happy endings or tidy resolutions.

Donald Miller, in Searching for God Knows What, writes of going to a writers’ conference, which I understand was our very own Oregon Christian Writers event.

In a review in Spectrum magazine, Trudy Morgan-Cole describes Donald’s description as “funny, but also annoyingly patronizing and chauvinistic.” I agree.

The lady sitting next to me was writing a wonderful series of Christian devotionals for girls who were taking ballet classes, and the lady on the other side of me was writing a series of devotionals you could read while drinking tea. When she told me this, a lady in front of us turned around and smiled because she was working on a series of devotionals you could read while drinking coffee. I told them their books sounded terrific, because it is true that some people like tea and some people like coffee, and for that matter, some people dance in ballets.

I admit, I’ve been a bit mocky myself at the swarms of people at OCW writing devotionals. And I’ve foamed at the mouth about all the smiling clueless lipsticked Englisch women writing Amish novels.

But let’s be clear: devotionals sell. Amish novels sell.

If you want to grow old and poor waiting for the New Yorker to accept your brilliant literary work, that is your privilege. The rest of us bend a bit. How far you bend is up to you and your conscience, of course.

Jo March wrote sensational stories for the Weekly Volcano [what a perfect name] before she decided, with some gentle guilting from Mr. Bhaer, that it wasn’t worth it. 

Two women writers I know flexed from their ideals so they could put their children through college. One wrote Amish novels. The other held her nose and wrote romances, including the required three sex scenes per book. I judged the former more harshly than the latter, knowing of course that neither has any obligation to agree with my ideals, and they were the ones with bills to pay.

In the long term, the newspaper was a better fit for my style than the Sunday school papers were. But I have no regrets about writing for CLP.

CLP has its traditions and guidelines, but they’ll give a beginning writer a chance. They bought my stories, paid for a car seat, and let me see my name in print. I’ve sent many people their way since.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with accommodating a publisher’s wishes and the readers’ tastes so you can earn money. Only you can decide how much you're willing to bend your ideals to sell a story.


  1. Thanks for the well-balanced treatment of this topic. So true!

    1. Thanks! I could learn a lot from you and your publishing experiences.

  2. Thank you, Dorcas, for your insights on writing and publishing. I too, got my start with CLP, and without their affirmation (and, yes, the vain pleasure of seeing my name in print and in cashing the checks) I doubt that I would have branched out to other publications. Nor had the courage to go to a writers' conference, or to start a book. I look forward to more of your writing advice - and to reading whatever you churn out. Blessings!

  3. I am wholeheartedly enjoying this series. I remember very clearly that first thrill when some of my poems were accepted by Pathway and a real check that you could cash for real money was along with it!