TRUE CONFESSION: I WAS A SERIES MACHINE by Kara LaReau
Ten years ago this July, almost to the day, I was just finishing my final radiation treatment. I’d been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in January of 2010, and had undergone two surgeries that February. In August, I was to begin chemotherapy, which would last until October. 2010 was a heck of a year.
But 2009 had also been a formative year for me. I’d been laid off from my job as an Executive Editor at Scholastic Press; when it became clear I wasn’t likely to get a job in publishing without relocating to New York, I formed my own freelance editing business, Bluebird Works. I’d just started taking on new clients when I began suffering from a nagging, then excruciating shoulder pain. But I’d been experiencing another form of unease — the more freelance editing clients I took on to accumulate the income I needed to survive, the less time I had for my own writing. I was eager to freelance so I could give my own writing equal attention and allow myself more autonomy, but it was looking like my mortgage and other bills were calling all the shots.
“If only I had a month or so to just write,” I told my husband at the end of 2009, after a particularly intense call with a freelance client. “I think I could give my writing career the jump-start it needs.”
Just a few weeks later, I received my diagnosis, and then had the surgery and started my radiation and chemo, which required me to take a break from editing for an entire year. (Be careful what you wish for, friends.) 2010 transformed me physically and mentally; it took me apart and put me back together, and when I came out the other side, I thought I was ready for my life to go “back to normal” and start editing again. There was just one problem: my priorities had changed, too. Having that time to focus on my writing made me approach my editing work differently. In my heart, I knew I wasn’t primarily an editor anymore. But I still needed to work, and so I took on new clients and continued my freelance editing through the first half of 2011.
And then I got my second cancer diagnosis. A patch of what I thought was eczema turned out to be cutaneous t-cell lymphoma; a “low-grade,” treatable lymphoma, the doctor told me, but still. It was as if the powers-that-be were hitting me over the head: “NOW will you pay attention?” Yes, I would. I shut down my editing business and decided to give writing my full attention.
Initially, it seemed like the right decision; shortly after I decided to hang up my editing hat, I got a two-book deal for the first and an as-yet-unwritten second story in what was to be the Infamous Ratsos series. Shortly thereafter, there was a three-house auction for my middle-grade series The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters. The money was good, enough to live on for a little while (after agent fees and taxes), but there was the question of what would happen at the end of that time. How would I make ends meet?
In January of 2017, I was thrilled to discover that the Infamous Ratsos had received a Geisel Honor. This accolade could not have come at a better time, as I had another new series out on submission, a middle-grade trilogy called the ZomBert Chronicles about a cat who may or may not be a zombie. When that series was bought, I felt like I could exhale, but only for a moment. Because now I had three series in the works. While being a series writer meant I had financial security, it also meant I’d be on deadline, non-stop, for the next several years.
It was a precarious, stressful time. I had a child by then, and with that came a host of extra expenses, beyond what my husband and I had budgeted for. He and I have always been equal partners in everything, including our financial livelihood; I was determined to carry my weight. So I was always hustling, always desperate for that next contract, always stressed about when that next check would come in. In the spring of 2018, one check came in several months later than expected, which threw my finances — and my family’s well-being — into turmoil. I’d had enough. It was time to swallow my pride and get a day job.
I applied for a full-time freelance copywriting contract at Hasbro and worked there for the next year; as I readjusted to corporate life and learned the ropes as a brand writer for Hasbro’s games team, I summoned all of my creative energy and wrote the fifth and sixth Infamous Ratsos stories, the final Bland Sisters installment, and the second of the ZomBert Chronicles. I’d become a series-writing machine, and while making all of this happen might sound like an achievement, it also took a toll on me physically and mentally. I never had a moment when I wasn’t working or worrying or planning, and I was cranky and sick almost all the time.
Now, finally, all three titles in the Bland Sisters trilogy have been written and published, and I finished the final book in the Infamous Ratsos series last fall. This January, I delivered the last book in the ZomBert Chronicles to my editor, just one week after I started a new freelance contract as a copywriter at Wayfair, a contract which led to my being offered a full-time position as a senior copywriter this spring. Of course, taking on permanent full-time employment means I can no longer call myself a full-time writer, and it means I have less time to write — and less time to network, attend industry events, schedule school visits, or promote my writing. (I actually had to take a day off just so I could sit down and write this essay, catch up on emails, and tend to a revision of a picture book I’ve been noodling with.)
I have to admit, I hate that taking on a full-time day job makes me feel less successful and in-the-loop than my full-time writer friends. But I love that I can sit back for a little while, and enjoy the fact that I’ve had three great new books come out this year — BABY CLOWN, my picture book with Matthew Cordell, The Infamous Ratsos CAMP OUT, the fourth in my chapter book series with illustrator Matt Myers, and RISE OF ZOMBERT, the first in my middle-grade series with illustrator Ryan Andrews. It means I can stop being a series machine and be thoughtful (and unhurried!) about what I want to do next. I have a head full of ideas, and a heart full of joy knowing that from now on, there’s no pressure. Time, as I have learned the hard way, is such a gift.
Kara LaReau is the author of many books for young readers, including the Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Book The Infamous Ratsos, The Infamous Ratsos Are Not Afraid, and The Infamous Ratsos: Project Fluffy. She is also the author of the Bland Sisters series of chapter books. The first book in her new series, The Zombert Chronicles, is on sale now!