Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Long View

Another priceless treasure landed in my in-box this week. Here's a little excerpt...:

I'm here on behalf of my fiancée. She's a huge fan of your Sammy Keyes book series--she has almost the whole series, library-bound. She's from the Mississippi Gulf Coast and has been reading your series from before Katrina hit the area. The books have remained by her side through that disaster and many others she has faced in her life. She's the strongest woman I know and reading your series has been very important for her.

This letter made me realize that taking the long view - moving forward with persistence, staying true to vision and purpose despite marketplace fads - does eventually return rewards beyond measure. I can't stress enough how much I appreciate that my editor and publisher enabled me to reach the conclusion of an 18-book, nearly 20-year series. Not all editors or publishers are willing to take a view that lengthy.

When the first Sammy Keyes book was published, I tried to figure out how to get on Oprah. I wasn't the only one - every author wanted to be on Oprah. I think authors drive their in-house publicists mad with all their enthused suggestions. My publicist at the time told me something really wise. She said, "You don't want to be on Oprah. You want a long, slow build. You want a sustainable career."

Of course I didn't agree. I didn't see how the two were mutually exclusive. Taking the long view takes confidence that you'll get another chance after this book. It takes patience. Back in 1998, I wasn't long on patience. I wanted things to happen now.

The long view is way easier to get perspective on from the far side. You know, after you've traversed twenty years and have a sustained career to analyze. It's almost impossible to truly take the long view when you're at the beginning of your career because you don't know how things are going to go.  And it feels almost like cheating to look back on a successful career and say, See? This is what happens with steady, consistent effort. You have an awesome career without the catapult of Oprah. You built your catalog without the distraction of a blinding spotlight. You got to hunker down and focus on the work, not the trappings. 

It's taken twenty years, but my publicist was right - I didn't want to be on Oprah. Sammy might not have become...Sammy.

My purpose for the Sammy Keyes series went far beyond forays into clever sleuthing. Sure, I love a good mystery. Good mysteries are awesome! But the larger picture of Sammy's purpose is what sustained me across the series and through twenty years of writing about her. It's what kept me going back, full of enthusiasm - not just for the next mystery - but for the next chapter in Sammy's life. It was about her evolution. About her learning to calibrate her moral compass. About her character, her strength.

If you're looking for girl power, I've got 18 kick-ass books for you. 

But in the marketplace, what happens is, people need to figure out where to shelve, how to categorize, and how to summarize.

For Sammy, that became "mystery" (clever sleuth) and "series" (of little literary merit).

And since there wasn't a contract for 18 books and there was no guarantee that all 18 would be written or published, there was little talk (other than from me) about the larger picture. 

But the larger picture is the key reason for the series. To instill the notion of nurturing individuality and internal strength in young readers - and yes, especially girls - is of such greater value than assembling the pieces of a clever puzzle. Yet breaking out of the "mystery" and "series" molds seemed, ironically, a more and more remote enterprise as the story unfolded and deepened. Would any critics / reviewers ever read from beginning to end and understand what was going on here? 

After reading one or two, most probably assumed they knew the drill, and now with 18 books to catch up on and a deluge of new works to review each season the answer has became, more and more clearly, probably not.

And yet...I get mail. Like the letter from the fiance. And it reinforces that in the long run, the long view does pay off. A letter like that makes me teary with gratitude: You read. You understood. You felt her. She helped you believe in yourself. 

Now that the series is complete and all 18 books are available without having to wait for the next installment to come out, I'm hopeful that a whole new generation of readers will discover and devour these books, and that they, too, will see Sammy as a friend who helped them face the troubles and roadblocks in their life. I'm looking forward to their letters. And their kids' letters.

Look at me. I'm taking the long view. 


Shaina said...

Amen! A standing ovation from this parent who also loves reading about Sammy! She is timeless! Grams is solid gold! And that speaks volumes about their creator. A "long view" is a rare quality these days. I appreciate it.

Wendelin Van Draanen said...

Thank you, Shaina! You always leave such positive comments. I truly appreciate it!