Just Keep Swimming

We all understand the old adage, writing is hard work. It’s excruciating at times. And so is surviving the business of writing. Long, long ago (and in a galaxy far far away), I graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults (VCFA) with a four-book contract for picture books that highlighted my love of American folklore and history. But, as much as I knew about writing and story, I knew nothing of the business of children’s publishing. And it is, foremost, a business.

I signed on with the first agent who would help me with the multi-contracts. This agent wasn't a hard find. I already had the contract in hand, or rather contracts, and so the hard work was done. But I had forgotten an important lesson. Like any relationship, you want to get to know each other, ask questions, and make sure it's a good fit. You don't get married after only a first date. And an agent-writer relationship is akin to a marriage. This agent sealed the deal with the contracts, but a couple of significant issues arose. She had signed the boiler plate contract. This means that the contracts included a couple of  very strict clauses: the option clause, which gives the publisher the privilege of publishing your next book, and the non-compete clause, which restricts the author from publishing another book that competes with the work in question. This first agent didn't negotiate to reword or remove them, and I didn't know enough to ask what they meant. Because of these clauses, I couldn’t submit work elsewhere until after and unless I give these publishers first look, and they weren’t looking at new works until these books were published. I fired the first agent, and found another but she couldn’t renegotiate the clauses because she wasn't the agent on record. Because she couldn’t sell my work, she let me go.

My first two picture books came out in 2009, eight years after signing the contract. The second book was published a year later. The third book came out in 2012, eleven years after signing the contract. The fourth contract was cancelled. I went to Author’s Guild, learned what I had to in order to understand these clauses, and then I renegotiated the particular clauses myself.

But there was yet another, stronger riptide I had to steer through. Beginning in 2001, the children’s market was changing dramatically. The folklore picture book market was bottoming out. The very genre that I had studied, loved, and sought as my career was no longer an option. What the heck do I do now? Writers have to find a way to adapt. So I moved to middle grade fiction. The challenge became in combining all that I had learned and loved in folklore and history with this new format. For a long while, it was a hit-and-miss effort. Finally I had this manuscript, Big River’s Daughter. By now, I was unsure if it even fit in a market that no longer viewed folklore as relevant. Even historical fiction was having a hard time. Patience and luck will out. I found my third agent and thought it a match in heaven. She sold my two middle grade novels in our first year together. But then, change happens. The agent decided to focus on picturebooks, and she let me go.

I was an orphan again. And two years later, despite having now seven books (I sold my first graphic novel) under my belt, I have yet to find a home. Lucky for me, whenever I felt like giving up, I have a circle of friends who remind me to never give up.

Or, as Dory says, Just Keep Swimming.

Along the way, I’ve gathered some inspirations and wisdoms I hope you find helpful. First is Vivian Kirkfield's inspiring story. In 2012, at the age of 65, she decided to become a traditionally published picture book author. In 2019, she will have four books debut, including a compilation book of nine full-length picture book biographies. She details the strategy she put together to make this happen. I think her plan is brilliant and already I am working on my stockpile.

Then there’s this wisdom from Caroline Starr Rose, in which she states : 
  “The writing life (and the publication process) is a long-road, long-view, long-term journey. There’s no other way to look at it…So, my friends, if you are on this journey, too, take heart. There is no right way. There’s no quick fix. There is no easy road. There is a fair dose of frustration and disappointment. But there is joy and satisfaction, too.”

And, then, remember this:

People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it. – Harlan Ellison

Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer. – Barbara Kingsolver

Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.
William Faulkner

Tell the readers a story! Because without a story, you are merely using words to prove you can string them together in logical sentences. – Anne McCaffrey

Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.
Jane Yolen

If you write one story, it may be bad; if you write a hundred, you have the odds in your favor.
Edgar Rice Burroughs

In other words, just keep swimming!

Bobbi Miller


  1. Good for you for swimming on and on. Thanks for the reminder! xox

  2. Goggles! Check. Swim suit! Check. Swim cap! Check. Swim fins! Check. Ready to keep on swimming through the crashing waves and the mighty winds of this writing life.

    1. Fair winds and following seas!!

    2. What Sherri said! Thanks for this reminder to have those fins and goggles at the ready and USE THEM always.

  3. I love this so much. I especially love those quotes you pulled.

  4. Bobbi Miller, I adore this post and your work. TY from somone who is in this biz for the long haul.


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