Do I really need an agent? What do they do for me anyway? Why can’t I just apply directly to publishers? Why is it all so complicated?
The best way for me to answer these questions is to talk though my own experience. Do you need an agent? That entirely depends on what you want. Self-publishing wasn’t really an option for me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I just want to write and not spend what limited time I have investigating self-publishing options and how to do it. I found the idea intimidating and marketing isn’t my forte. If you self-publish – it’s two full time jobs. One for the actual writing, the other for the promotion. But if you do get traditionally published, you will still be expected to be involved in marketing, no matter how big the publisher. This can be anything from school tours (For YA in my case) to book signings, conferences and panels, and often teaching. I feel, with the backing of a publisher, much more confident in handling this. And as for applying directly to publishers? Some of the smaller ones have open submission periods, but the larger ones don’t want to know unless you have an agent.
So, several years ago, when I was pregnant with my third child and after I had written my disastrous first book that will never see the light of day, I came up with a new idea for a novel. A trilogy, actually. After having completed a Writer’s Bureau course on novel writing, I felt I was in a better place to make this book better. And it was. But I was a newbie. Twitter wasn’t really out there yet and Facebook was just for finding old friends, not connecting with other authors. I had no one to give me advice or tell me what a query letter was. I got myself a copy of the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook, scanned the list of agents, and sent off my second draft (!) to everyone.
My query letter consisted of a lot of information about why I write and the time of day I favoured (oh dear), and not much about the book beyond a sentence.
Which, I guess, in hindsight, was the elevator pitch and, luckily, seemed to draw some interest.
Magically (I realise that now) I received a few full requests. One ultimately ended in being signed with my first agent. (whoop). I thought I had it made. This was it. She put me in touch with a freelance editor she used, we did three months of edits, and off my book baby went into the world while I started writing book 2 & 3. After a year, it was time to face the reality that my book wasn’t going to sell. But I had a new series, and could we try that too please. But my agent didn’t like that book, despite fabulous support from beta readers.
Needless to say, I was crushed. What happened to all those pre-empts and six-way auctions? Didn’t they know this was the next Hunger Games? How can you say Dystopia is dead when so many people are reading it?
After a further three books died out on sub over the next three years, it was time to figure out what the hell was going on.
During that time, I did a few more courses, met my tribe on Twitter and my writing rocketed up a few levels. So did my understanding of how the literary world works. Looking back on my relationship with my first agent, I realised she was all wrong for me. Being a very well renowned agent but also a one-woman band, she out-sourced the editing to freelancers. Which is fine. But (A) I wasn’t pushed hard enough to improve my craft and (B) my agent never really read the books again before sending them out on sub, but took the editor’s word for it. (Red flag). Secondly, my agent didn’t really do YA. So why was I with an agent that didn’t understand the YA market? BECAUSE IT WAS MY ONLY OFFER! AND A BAD AGENT IS BETTER THAN NONE. Or so I thought. It took me three years to cut the tie that I thought was going to launch my career and realise I had to start over. Also, communication. She wasn’t a hand holder. And I don’t need 24/7 contact, but answers to the odd email would be nice too.
As bad as all this sounds, we split very amicably and remain in touch. I was despondent for a while and determined to get my first book ready for self-publication while I queried agents with my others. (I had written 15 novels by this point).
Hiring a US editor (where the book is set) made me realise there was still a lot I could improve in the book. It had a big saggy middle and was nearing 100k. (uh-oh). Plus, she taught me a few things about craft and what to look out for.
(An aside – the more people you expose to your work for feedback, the more you will grow. And you will never stop learning).
A few weeks after I’d edited it, I pitched it at a live event to an agent (Freaking scary – but yay, I did it!). We hit it off. Separately, I got a few offers from small US publishers and managed to put the whole querying thing on fast forward (And by this time, damn, I knew how to write a query letter). Note: it didn’t get me a bunch of offers, it just sped up the whole process. But I ended up with the agent I wanted. And she made me cut another 10k from the book. Now, after 12 drafts, the book is finally ready and is out on sub. But I also fully except there will be an editing round when/if it gets picked up. I say ‘if’ not because I’m a pessimist – actually you have to be an eternal optimist with a bottomless determination to stay in this game – but because I know, no matter how ‘well written’ my book may be, it also depends on whether the editor is in the right frame of mind, doesn’t have something similar on their books, is still looking for my genre, feels that YA is still selling, had the appropriate amount of chilli flakes on their breakfast eggs, and that there’s a blue moon and mercury is in retrograde, for it to get to that next stage. And then you have to start all over again with book 2.
Having one published isn’t a free ticket to success.
I can feel you reeling right now. (Why do we do this to ourselves?) I do it because it’s my dream and I will never give up. Never.
My advice about finding an agent: It’s not a guarantee for a publishing deal, but they will protect you from the rejections, they will hold your hand and be your cheerleader, they will give you good advice about the market and the timing for your book, they will take you out for a drink when it all goes wrong, or right. But you do need to find the right one. I learned the hard way. And yes, self-publishing is always an option if you want, but hire that editor, make sure you know your stuff about marketing so your book stands out from the ones that haven’t put in that necessary effort.
More about Marisa Noelle –
I have completed a Writer’s Bureau novel and short story writing course, Curtis Brown’s acclaimed three-month novel writing course for children (London), Aaron Sorkin’s online master class for screen writing, and Writers HQ Plotstormers 1 plotting course and Plotstormers 2 editing course. Plus the Writers HQ Characterisation master class and short fiction courses. I have been short listed for both #peerpitch1 & 2 (2017) competitions, and shortlisted for #1st 50, and longlisted for the #peerpitch Q1 2018 competition. I have been longlisted for Adventures in Fiction New Voices Competition and Flash 500 Novel Opening Competition. I am a member of SCWBI and have completed a mentorship at the Golden Egg Academy with Matilda Johnson. I hold a BSc in psychology. I have written 16 YA novels in the urban fantasy/light-sci-fi genre and I also tackle mental health.
Twitter & Instagram: @marisanoelle77
No, this post is not going to give writers bad advice.
It’s going to talk about all the bad advice writers are getting.
Ever since I started publishing novels several years ago, I’ve noticed (via Twitter, blogs, and other sources) the sheer volume of writing advice that’s dispensed online. You know what I’m talking about: “How to Build Your Platform,” “How to Increase Your Twitter Following,” “How to Make Your Writing So Gosh-Darn Good Everyone in Hollywood Will Line Up to Option Your Manuscript-in-Progress.” More often than not, these solicitations come with a price tag.
I don’t have a problem with such services. It’s a legitimate business to dispense writing advice. (I’m doing it here.) It’s also a legitimate business to charge for it. I teach at a college, and one of the things I teach is writing. So I am, in fact, getting paid to deliver writing advice.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s even legitimate to scare writers with horror stories, and charge for it, if those stories are true. I do it all the time with my students. As in: “If you don’t work harder in this course, you’re going to fail.” That’s a truthful statement. Ignore it at your own peril.
But it is never, ever, ever legitimate to mislead writers, to scare them with misinformation, in the interest of selling them your services.
So, for example, this piece of advice, which I read in a blog to remain nameless, starts out with a legitimate claim but ends on a note that is completely illegitimate:
When it comes to building your author platform, there’s no question that the more visibility you have, the greater your chance at building relationships, gaining visibility, and potentially, greater sales, more reviews, and stronger word of mouth about your book. Also, if you want to have an agent represent you or sign with a publisher, know that they will expect you to have a minimum of 10,000 followers on Twitter (I’ve met with two agents and a few pubs — it’s true.)
Actually, it isn’t.
Oh, maybe it’s true for the two agents and “a few” publishers this particular blogger met with—though if that’s the case, I’d advise said blogger to meet with a broader and more reputable pool of agents and publishers.
When I, as a rookie writer with little experience and even less social media savvy, shopped around my debut manuscript to scores of agents, no one asked if I had a Twitter account. Which was a good thing, because at the time, I didn’t.
Ditto with the editors who saw the manuscript. No one asked me how many Twitter followers I had. No one gave a damn.
Can it be any coincidence that the above blogger is in the business of promoting fee-based services to grow one’s Twitter following?
I still don’t have anywhere near 10,000 Twitter followers. I probably never will. Apparently, the three novels I’ve published were figments of my Twitter-starved imagination.
Writers, as a group, are vulnerable people. They’re not as vulnerable as, say, homeless children, but they’re vulnerable: insecure, facing steep odds, lacking in confidence. To offer legitimate services to such people is fine.
To lie to such people in an attempt to get them to fork over their hard-earned money is inexcusable.
So please, if you’re just starting out in the writing business—or, heck, if you’ve been doing it for twenty years—be on the lookout for bad writing advice. Don’t fall for it, and certainly don’t pay for it. If you’re feeling really feisty, contact the dispenser thereof and give them a piece of your mind.
That’s what I did to the aforesaid blogger. I still haven’t heard back. They must have blocked me on Twitter.
Joshua David Bellin has been writing novels since he was eight years old (though the first few were admittedly very short). He is the author of three YA science fiction novels: Survival Colony 9, Scavenger of Souls, and Freefall. Josh loves to read, watch movies, and spend time in Nature with his kids. Oh, yeah, and he likes monsters. Really scary monsters.
How do you know when it is time to shelve a completed MS?
Congratulations on finishing a manuscript! Ninety percent of aspiring novelists never make it to this stage in the process. (I made that figure up, but it sounds correct to me.) Now, you’ve got this pile of words and nowhere to go with it. This is a difficult question to answer because I feel like I need more information to give you good advice. Therefore, I’ll give you a few different situations and hope that one of them fits your scenario, a kind of flow-chart for whether you should do battle for your story or surrender it.
Sitch 1: You know your story’s not working as it is, but you don’t know why.
Here, you could employ the services of a good content editor or assemble a critique group to go over it in a roundtable discussion with the goal of telling you why it’s not working. Tell them to be tough with you and take your lumps gracefully because it’s a big investment of time and energy for anyone to try and figure out why a story isn’t working.
Most things can be fixed in revision, but not all. If at the end of this process, you feel your story is salvageable without changing your original intent, then the rewrite process begins. You may find you need a couple of months away from the story in order to come back to it fresh. You may also decide that trying to fit your existing manuscript into your revisioning is more work than it’s worth. That’s okay too. Sometimes, starting from scratch is easier than trying to “fix” a manuscript. It sounds scary but know that all of those beautiful descriptions and lines of witty dialogue will be available to be cut and pasted into the new story if it makes sense.
Sitch 2: Your story is working, but nobody wants to publish it.
By “nobody,” do you mean mainstream publishing? If so, don’t take it personally. They are so gosh-darned picky these days. All they want are guaranteed, instantaneous bestsellers, right? Where does that leave the rest of us? Luckily, this day and age, we have options.
There is a plethora of small and independent publishers out there who might want your story. Part of your job is researching who might be interested in your particular genre and theme. Also, submitting an excerpt from your story to relevant publications, either online or in print, is a good way to build up your reputation.
If mainstream doesn’t want it, and the indie pub route doesn’t appeal to you, then there is always self-publishing. Our corporate overlord, Amazon, has made it easier than ever for writers to self-publish their works via Kindle Direct Publishing and Kindle Create (the paperback affiliate that supplies the service CreateSpace formerly did). I recently went through this process (pulling out my hair during the formatting bit), and at the end, had a swell-looking paperback, a Kindle e-book that gives me 70% royalties, and a spot in the Kindle Unlimited subscription program where you get paid according to how many people read your book (and how many pages). Profits remain to be seen, and you’re going to want to make sure you have a good proofreader and cover designer to make your product the best it can be, but it can be done! To be clear, I’m not saying this is the best or most advantageous way to go; I’m simply saying this is an alternative to shelving it.
Sitch 3: Your story is not working, you know it, and what it would take to fix it would completely destroy what you set out to do, and you would end up hating the story and yourself by the end of it.
Then, yes, you need to shelve it. But don’t lose heart. I’ve had to shelve projects before and characters have a way of coming back to you, 10x stronger. This may not be the right story for you to work on now but shelving it doesn’t mean abandoning it forever. More like the story is away on vacation, and the two of you will be reunited when the time is right. That’s why you’d better back your stuff up. You never know when you’re going to want to go back to a former project and breathe new life into it.
For those of us who can’t travel to conferences/afford to go on MFA courses, what would you recommend is a good expenditure for aspiring writers to invest in their craft?
I feel you. Conferences are expensive, and the results vary. The only thing you can be assured of, is spending ton of money. But that doesn’t mean you can’t become a better writer. Here are a few non-expensive ways to better your craft:
Hit up the library.
There are a ton of books on the craft of writing. Writers LOVE to write about their craft and many of them have done so. Google search “best books on writing fiction,” and the usual suspects will turn up. I also recommend scouring the web for some great writing resources. Here are a few of my favs:
This site is a great resource for plotting and learning to create Beat Sheets, which is what screenwriters use to write screenplays and can be translated to novel writing as well.
Alexandra has great tools for writers on plotting their novels and a lot of free downloads as well.
Kristen has a great blog that is part therapy, part craft. She covers everything you could imagine regarding not only the craft of writing, but also the route to publication. She’s also very funny.
Also known as Fiction University, Janice has been around the block, so to speak, and often features literary agents and editors on her blog, so the information is always current.
Writer/Editor James Scott Bell has a ton of resources on his site and has written or contributed to more than a dozen books devoted to the craft of writing.
But books and websites can’t replace the expertise and feedback of real, live people, so I would also encourage you to…
Make writer friends.
Facebook is a great way to meet other writers and join groups particular to your genre. One of my groups was instrumental in helping me navigate the self-publishing process. And there are often people looking to trade critiques and get/give feedback on projects. Once you find a good critique partner, hold onto them for dear life. And if you find someone you just don’t jive with, let them go. Life’s too short to deal with people who don’t understand what you’re trying to accomplish as an artist.
Form a critique group.
Building on the above, you might want to consider having a regular meet-up, either in person or online for you and your writer friends so that you guys can have ongoing discussions about each other’s’ projects. The consistency, accountability and relationship-building of these types of groups can be instrumental to you as a writer, not only in improving upon your craft, but also in navigating the highs and lows of publishing.
The most important thing is to not lose heart. Most of us writers are struggling (read: broke), so we are always looking to lend a hand.
Have a question for Laura? Fill out the form below for a chance to be selected for August’s #DearLaura post!
Laura Lascarso is the author of several young and new adult novels including THE BRAVEST THING, which won a 2017 Rainbow Award for best gay contemporary romance and COUNTING BACKWARDS, which won a 2012 Florida Book Award gold medal for young adult literature. If you have a burning question about writing or publishing, please tweet @lauralascarso and include the tag #dearlaura
Learn more at www.lauralascarso.com
Calvin Coolidge said, “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.” Genius will not, unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan PRESS ON! Has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”
Eight years ago when I began my writing journey, true to my type-A personality, I made a to-do list, believing that my path to publication glory would be swift and complete in no more than two years. I made a timeline, color coded and neatly labeled.
I might not have started on this path had I known that the last decade would be a long and humbling exercise with no monetary remuneration wrought with rejection and despair. Webster’s Dictionary defines persistence as the firm or obstinate continuance in course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition. Determination is explained as firmness of purpose; resoluteness.
Little did I know how much persistence and determination I was going to need. At one particularly low point, after a graduate degree, oodles of agent rejections, and years on submission, I was overcome with doubt, sure that I was a talentless fraud. I found myself at a crossroad: I could quit and put my book in a drawer. Or I could try again (and again), and press on.
Nevertheless, after a few good cries, I persisted.
Writing stirs something deep in my soul that I can’t access through any other channel. I like the arrangement of a sentence, the musicality and rhythm of good prose, the connectiveness of ideas—the thrill when a reader reaches out to me to say what I’ve written has helped or touched her in some way. In the words of Albert Camus, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” It is my way of saying this is what I know about the world—my way to talk about first love, bullying, sexual assault, self-image, and alcoholism. It gives me a sense of purpose.
Yet despite my noble writing intentions, 99% of the literary gatekeepers I have encountered on the way have said, “No! We don’t think what you have to say is of value. REJECT.”
The road has been dark and lonely.
Even now, after I can legitimately call myself a published author, if I’m honest, the odds of literary success are stacked against me: I’ve started late on this second career—I’m not a hot, under thirty or even under forty, up and coming voice. Plus there are 600,000+ books published every year so breaking through the crowded space is like trying to secure a private audience with the Pope.
Still, I continue. (Maybe, I’m partially insane).
But this did happen:
On February 11, 2018 at the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts, I stood before a couple hundred people at my book launch celebration. Black Rose Writing had published my book and people were lining up to buy it, to read it, and they’d come to celebrate this moment with me.
In that moment, before my family and friends, I knew what my life’s work is supposed to be. That I am to press on in this direction.
And those two celebratory hours, after 3000+ days of turmoil, are and will be the fuel to power me through the next leg of the journey as I grind out the draft of And The Valley Wept (book two in the Millington Valley series), as I face my critics, as I go back on submission to secure a second book deal, and as I hunt for my first book’s audience and find readers who align with my creative sensibilities. That’s the hardest part for me to accept—that not everybody is going to love my writing (what, three stars?)—alas, I must proceed.
My message, my hope, is that if I can touch one person with this blog today who is working on a dream and if I can give her (or him) a little push to keep going, I am a literary success.
- Block out the naysayers.
- Read the rejections once and then delete them.
- Hop over the stumbling blocks
- Take a sledgehammer to the brick walls.
Remember I am living proof, that if a middle-aged, real estate selling, married, mom of two teenagers, can step in the direction of her dreams, if she can make a dent in them, then you can, too. May I bestow upon you: persistence and determination in the pursuit of your goals. May you be firm. Resolute. Whether you are building a business, starting a non-profit, writing a book, going back to school, crafting your life’s vision, my message is PRESS ON—sometimes that will be all you have: those two mighty words. May we be so lucky as to meet farther along up the road, the wind with the soft whisper of Calvin Coolidge at our backs.
Yes, my friend, please press on.
Heather Christie grew up in rural Pennsylvania and, at age seventeen, took off for New York City in hopes of becoming a movie star. Flash forward several decades, a couple degrees, a bunch of cats, two kids and one husband later, she’s back in Pennsylvania a wife, mother of two teenagers, writer, real estate broker, amateur cook, exercise freak, and avid reader. She holds a BA in Literary Studies from the University of Texas, Dallas and an MFA in Creative Writing from Pine Manor College, Boston, MA. She loves to read, run, drink tea, and make Sunday dinner. Kirkus Reviews calls her debut novel What The Valley Knows, “A taut, compelling family tale.” (1/25/2018 by Black Rose Writing) Heather’s non-fiction work has been published by Writer’s Digest, Scary Mommy, Elephant Journal, Mamapedia, The Good Men Project, Grown & Flown, Parent.co, Bon Bon Break, Her View From Home, the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, Sammichs and Psych Meds, and The Lighter Side of Real Estate. Follow her blog at www.HeatherChristieBooks.com and say “hello” on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Heather was a member of the 2017 Listen To Your Mother cast.
Sometimes I think it’s my mother’s fault I started writing.
When I was young, long before I could read, she got me books-on-tape and because I’m ADHD (read: ‘can’t fall sleep’) I’d listen to stories long into the night. The earliest books I remember are full of magic and beauty, of hope, love, and loss, of longing and good-versus-evil and the gray in between.
I think that built up who I am inside. I’d like to imagine I’d be me without it—that without those words I’d still be who I am. But I think, in a way, I wouldn’t exist. Because those words not only taught me to think as I do, they made me crave a ‘moreness’ I could only half see—a sort of pocket of truth hovering just out of reach. And they reminded me writers can reach out and touch it, bring back an echo of truth to those who read their work.
I also blame my mother for the misguided notion that I couldn’t write myself because the industry was closed—a notion I warped not to mean I couldn’t get in but that the story I told needed to open doors through its utter perfection.
Now I don’t mean perfection in the strictest sense.
I’m not sure I ever thought what I read was flawless, but I saw in stories an undeniable truth, something the author could see in a way I couldn’t.
It took me to age fourteen to realize I was wrong.
I’d been visiting my grandparents and was bored out of my mind because I’d finished all my books and their TV lacked channels, so I’d finally picked up a novel my mother had packed. (You see a theme developing? It was her book not mine.) But the book was—well—boring, quite appallingly bad. The characters hung flat. The plotline ran dull. There was no magic, no spark, just an excellent idea that had died under poor writing. And I realized in that minute, I could do that too.
Because if that story was published then why shouldn’t mine be?
I know, I know—that’s awful, right? Never say, “Well, if that book…” and expect logic like that to justify your own poor writing, but as a teenager dreaming that wasn’t the point.
I didn’t need to know how not to write.
I just needed to know I had permission—to write, to dream, to find a ‘moreness’ of my own. And I needed to realize ‘perfection’ wasn’t perfect. Which was an immense relief: I’d never wanted to be perfect.
Well, time went by and I got some degrees, first in journalism, then in history, all the while writing and studying and working myself so I could finally get there.
You all know what I mean: to that nebulous ‘there’.
I think we, as writers, all define our ‘there’ differently.
My ‘there’ held two meanings, one I’ve realized, one I’ve not. The first was a ‘there’ that surrounded my concept of beauty—of darkness slashed with light, of hope rising from sorrow—so my first attempt at ‘there’ was simply writing that story, that one in my heart that held beauty for me.
My second ‘there’ is something I haven’t accomplished, and I know beyond doubt I never will because my second ‘there’ isn’t a thing or a place I can get to—it’s finding utter perfection in the strictest sense, that one perfect story that will answer all of my questions and fulfill all of my hopes. And that’s far too big a thing for me to ever reach, which means, practically speaking, I’ll always be challenged, always have something to learn, always have better stories to write.
I suppose, in a way, that’s how I like things. Just a little beyond me. Just a little too big.
So maybe I would have become a writer after all.
Because I needed a career that would always somehow elude me.
That’s one of the paradoxes of being a writer: the inability to catch what we see in our eyes. That dream—that story—may be as solid as anything, but when we approach it turns to an elusive mist. I think what I saw as perfection as a child was really that mist—someone else’s ‘there’ or ‘moreness’. And I suppose that’s part of why we writers write: there’s this shadow of potential encased in our words, but that shadow is never the same book by book. My ‘moreness’ isn’t your ‘moreness’; our perfections are different, yet we’re all on a quest to create beauty and worth.
My second ‘there’—that goal of getting to utter perfection—is so much less a thing or a place I can reach and so much more a part of my deepest longings because while I don’t want to be perfect, I do want to find it. I want to reach into that ‘moreness’ and hold onto that mist, which means as long as my grasp falls frustratingly short, that ‘there’ will always elude me, and there’s beauty in that.
Several months ago, at a used-book sale at my local library, I happened upon The Mystery at Lilac Inn, by Carolyn Keene. I scooped up the dark blue volume, with its orange silhouette of the famed “girl detective,” and paged through it. I realized my good luck on the copyright page: I had scored a first edition! But after that first page… it wasn’t the story I remembered from middle school. And more than once, it made me cringe.
This was 1930s Nancy Drew, created by a syndicate of ghostwriters. In the late 1950s, she was remade by a new syndicate of ghostwriters. (And in recent decades, she’s been remade by other syndicates of ghostwriters.) 1930s Nancy, I discovered as I read the first edition, was bold and sassy—with mortifying drips of racism clinging to her like a vestigial tail.
1950s Nancy, the one I knew as the “classic,” was rewritten to be more ladylike and naturally good at literally everything. And the manifest racism was gone… if only because any characters of color were erased and replaced with white ones.
What’s to be done with books like these—books with racism stitched into their bindings?
Some say we should consign such books to a literary dustbin: that classics like To Kill A Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are fundamentally flawed and should be replaced, especially in schools, with works by marginalized authors. Others argue that removing historical books with racist content is tantamount to censorship, a slippery academic slope.
As a writer, I’m fundamentally concerned with how my work will be consumed by present and future young readers. As author Malcolm Jones puts it, “the troublesome thing about books is that they never completely go away. And a lot of the books with offensive material are in fact classics, so the whole [children’s publishing] industry is saddled with an ugly past that keeps breaking in on the present.” To build a better literary landscape for the future, then, I think we can and must learn from the past.
Examples of racism in children’s literature persist on bookstore shelves and in classrooms. Some, such as the Nancy Drew series and Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, have been updated for modern young audiences (the latter by eliminating the original description of Willy Wonka’s Oompa-Loompas as black cannibals).
Others—including Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series—have retained their original material. Huckleberry Finn, viewed as anti-racist satire, is still taught in schools despite its controversial, frequent use of the “n-word.” To Kill A Mockingbird’s perennial place on school book lists has also been challenged, given its “white gaze” perspective on racism, especially as marginalized voices are now gaining long-overdue traction in children’s publishing. And the widely beloved Little House series bluntly presents Ma’s hatred of Indians and Pa’s participation in a blackface minstrel show.
Examples like these run deeper than the Nancy Drews and Willy Wonkas. They reflect the times in which they were written, racist warts and all. To eliminate them completely from classroom discussions does a disservice to students. Critical thought and understanding of historical facts are indeed critical elements in our country’s education of its children.
Attempting to sanitize books of their racism is often seen as an alternative to vetoing those books outright. Sometimes, as in the Nancy Drew series and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this kind of “updating” can be done without impact to the larger story. But for books like Huckleberry Finn—where racism is a load-bearing wall—editing out supremacist ugliness amounts to whitewashing, an erasure of important historical lessons. In the words of African-American literature scholar Fatima Shaik, “Our kids need our protection but also our honesty. So books that describe a racist society as a racist society are not bad. They are necessary.”
So, how should we handle these complicated, not-going-away classics?
In a word: responsibly.
Educators who include historical books with racist content have a responsibility to their students: to provide context and the opportunity to process these works through an honest, modern lens. Conversations about racism are often difficult for students—for adults, too—but such conversations will never get easier if they are not constructively guided early on.
Parents who share beloved classic books with their children are responsible for helping them recognize outdated, offensive content. Newbery medalist Grace Lin compares books such as the Little House series to out-of-touch relatives: “You can still love that relative, and you can still let them be a part of your child’s life. But because you know they might say something you don’t like, don’t you try to keep an extra ear open, in case they say something in front of your child? And then, don’t you explain afterwards?”
Then, there are writers like me who hope to reach hordes of young readers. We have responsibilities as well, both to our own stories and to promoting the stories of writers whose words have been harder to hear in a system that was built to exclude them. Especially as a reader and writer who has never struggled to find representation, characters who are essentially like me, I need to write characters of different backgrounds respectfully and responsibly.
I also may need to engage the valuable services of sensitivity readers—as author Anna Hecker aptly calls them, “diversity editors.” For my work-in-progress, a fairytale retelling that features a diverse cast and a white supremacist antagonist, I know I’ll need to check my privilege and ask for help (more than once) to make this story complete and genuine.
In short, writers are responsible for producing and supporting the most authentic, fulfilling content we can for present and future readers. If we can do that, then maybe someday next-generation readers will scoop up first-edition copies of our books at library sales.
And maybe, hopefully, we won’t make them cringe.
Joy Givens resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with her fantastic husband, their two remarkable sons, and an impossibly lovable dog. Joy primarily writes “fresh, fantastic, fierce” young adult fiction. Her novel UGLY STICK, short story collection APRIL’S ROOTS, and nonfiction guide THE NEW SAT HANDBOOK are available on Amazon.com. Joy’s short fiction has also been published by WOW! Women on Writing and Cat & Mouse Press (BEACH LIFE anthology, 2017). In addition to her writing, Joy is the owner and lead tutor of Givens Academic and Preparatory Tutoring, a company serving the greater Pittsburgh area. She enjoys singing and listening to most genres of music, cooking for family and friends, and curling up with a good book and good coffee
It’s highly regarded in the writing community, and for good reason. An experienced critique partner can catch a plot hole the author might miss because they can’t see the whole story. Grammar mistakes are easier for a secondary person to notice because they don’t know what the text says until they read it.
But feedback is dangerous if you don’t know how to handle it.
The most popular pitfall of feedback is mental drain. Criticism can be tough to take. But this post isn’t about the difficulties of accepting feedback. This post is about the danger of too much.
Two years ago, I was lucky enough to join an incredible studio full of writers who were all passionate about craft and wanted to help their peers succeed. Everyone was excited to give feedback, which meant I got tons of it. Every page of my work was covered in grammar tips, character arc opinions, anything and everything that could possibly be covered. It was amazing!
Diving in with voracity, I took every suggestion to heart. My character’s drives aren’t clear? I’ll clarify! This area of dialogue drags? I’ll spice it up! Maybe a, b and c aren’t necessary? Cool, they’re tossed! I was not going to be one of those writers who was unwilling to rewrite. Writing is rewriting. Kill the darlings. I aspired to implement everything.
That was a mistake.
The problem was, all these critiques and opinions were based off 20-25 pages of a 280 page novel. These CPs were critiquing one puzzle piece, so when I changed the piece according to their ideas that piece no longer fit with the rest of the story. Week after week, I made the same error. I ended up with a pile of beautifully edited words and tight scenes that led to nowhere.
It was a disaster. How had I let this happen?
I’d done what a writer was supposed to do. I kept an open mind, listened to other’s opinions, and was more than willing to change my words.
Writing is hard. We all want to get better. I was so desperate to avoid being one of those writers who refused help I ended up giving comments too much weight. It hurt when I came to the rough realization that I had let of go of what I was trying to build. My characters’ desires had taken a back seat. I was writing for other people.
I forgot that the story I was working on was exactly that: My story.
Putting that novel in a drawer felt like locking away a piece of soul. There was so much potential in those pages, but I was caught in a feedback whirlpool and I was too tired to swim out. The novel sat in my “later” file with it’s adequate word count and inadequate pacing and plot. Two weeks later, after my mind stopped spinning, I started working on a new project.
This time, I paid attention to the craft mistakes CP’s were consistently pointing out in my work. When I took this new book to critique group I focused on my personal goals for each sample. Any feedback that conflicted with the chapter theme and direction was marked but not implemented. If an area was brought up more than once, I would note it, but didn’t always follow their exact suggestions. Too be honest, I almost never did. But I’d mark the area: “Something is wrong here. Revisit. It’s not working.” I’d fix it, but I made sure it fit with the rest of the story.
Looking back, that feedback debacle was a blessing dressed as tragedy. It taught me the importance of sifting through comments while staying true to my story. It also highlighted the importance of picking the right CPs. A person who doesn’t like a story because of conflicting taste isn’t a good fit.
Recently, I opened the drawer and wiped the cobwebs off the tragically over-edited book. The pages of feedback I received last year now look like suggestions. It’s easy to see where I went wrong because I’ve finally figured out how to handle the comments correctly. Pacing is important. If a scene is slow, fix it, but it can be fixed in many ways. Plot holes are an issue, but story is a matter of taste– a sweet romance writer might not like dark fantasy; in return, a fantasy writer might think a sweet romance is too slow. Style varies. Characters are important–if no one likes them or they’re acting outside of their personality, there’s a problem.
But the best lesson I learned is a happy one: everything can be fixed.
The “drawer book” is different than it was when I first started, but all books go through metamorphosis. It’s a better book because of the journey it went on, even if it was a painful one. I’ve added many of the old scenes back, but they’ve been tweaked to a higher level. Several scenes were tossed, because critique partners are often right. That’s the key to feedback. Balance. At the end of the day, the story belongs to the writer.
Jessica Grace Kelley is an accountant by day and writer by night. She greatly prefers her night job. She’s an author and poet, and her young adult novels have received over a dozen awards and contest wins, including the Daphne du Maurier, the YA Authors.Me contest, and the Emma Merritt. Jessica holds a BA in Finance and Accounting. When she isn’t buried in books she spends her time writing music and co-teaching a teen writing class. Sometimes she tries to be a painter, but the product of her efforts proves it’s all in her head.
Greetings from 78°N and -16°C! I have been up here since the beginning of March when I arrived a few days before the celebration of the sun’s return… Longyearbyen is on the largest island of the Arctic Archipelago of Svalbard, approximately 1,200 kms north of the Arctic Circle. There are no trees, just mountains and glaciers and a relatively thin layer of snow. And not too many people either. Longyearbyen’s population is around 2,200 and the entire archipelago has less than 3,000 residents.
– um, OK… *sounds cold* but what does that have to do with world building?
Everything! Although it’s easy to see details of world building when you read about Middle Earth or Starships, a contemporary novel set in a real place also has a distinct world that the author has created – either by constructing a fictional setting or by choosing which parts of an existing setting to include or to omit.
The purpose of world building is to create a setting for your story. It is the structure in which your characters evolve and your story arc unfolds.
– But what does that have to do with point of view (POV)?
The world your characters inhabit shapes how they view the world and how they react. Whether done consciously or unconsciously, the world you create informs the story problem and its themes.
– And that connects to living in the Arctic… how?
A character’s POV and the world they inhabit are intricately inter-linked – and no place shows that better than here in Longyearbyen where some of the things we take for granted living below the Arctic Circle just don’t hold true anymore.
– Like what?
Like ‘day’ and ‘night’. Day is when the sun is up. Night when it is down. Right?
– Well, duh.
Nope. Not here. In Longyearbyen the sun dips below the horizon for the last time on October 15. And stays down until February 15 – although in Longyearbyen, because of the mountains, you don’t actually see the sun until March 8. And from April 20 to August 20 the sun stays up 24 hours a day – it circles around the sky going higher or lower, but never dipping below the horizon. Which means that when you go out with friends in the summer you stumble out of the pub into broad daylight at 2 in the morning. And when you meet a friend for lunch at noon in January, it looks like you are meeting them at midnight. Right now, the twilight goes on for hours giving a fabulous blue light.
– So daylight and darkness have more to do with the seasons than with day and night?
Absolutely! And a person/character who has grown up here (or in any other community north of the Arctic Circle) will have a different idea of what it means to walk home in the dark than those of us who grew up with dark meaning night – and as a girl growing up in Massachusetts I was brought up to understand that dark meant danger.
– Yeah, but being in a big city like NYC the night doesn’t feel the same either – there are always so many people out.
True. And that’s just another example of how the place you live affects the way you see the world – or even what makes sense to have happen in a story. Take for example the idea of having a character find a buried treasure, hidden by a pirate a hundred years ago, in their backyard. For a character growing up in Cambridge, MA that would make sense. But not if your character was in NYC or in Longyearbyen. In NYC there aren’t any backyards (so the treasure would have to have been buried in one of the city parks instead?) and in Longyearbyen the city is built on permafrost (so maybe it was hidden in a nearby glacier that is now slowly moving down the valley?).
– Wait. You live on permafrost? Isn’t that like really cold?
Yes and no. As with night and day, it’s relative. After graduating from high school my twin brothers and I took off for college. I headed up to Alaska, one brother went to California, and the other stayed close to home. By the time we gathered again at Christmas and went out to a local bar to catch up, we realized we were all dressed for different types of weather. I had on a light sweater. The brother from California had a double layer of jackets and scarves and was still cold while the one who had stayed at home looked like everyone else walking down the street with a ‘normal’ coat, a hat and gloves. So you adapt (and get the right clothes). Just the other day, when it was only -10°C out, everyone commented on how warm it was – and went out with a layer or two less. It’s all a question of what you are used to and that’s what I meant about how world building and point of view are connected: what you experience (the world around you) shapes the way you see the world (POV).
– So if it’s like winter all the time, does everyone drive a snowmobile or something?
Pretty much, actually! But that’s also because there aren’t many roads. In and around Longyearbyen there are only about 42 kilometers of roads after that it’s just open nature. The ‘two-vehicle’ family has a different twist up here since many have both a car and a snowmobile. Basically, if you want to get out of town in the winter/spring, you have to have a snowmobile. In the warmer months, when the sea ice has melted, you can also go places by boat.
It also means that teens, when they get their first permits, drive snowmobiles to school. Snowmobiles are a real source of freedom for teens – there really isn’t much you can do in a town of 2,200 people where everyone knows everyone. And believe me, they really do know how to drive them. I went for a drive with a teen the other day and he was hanging off the side and standing on the seat as if it was a BMX – whereas I felt adventurous just standing up!
– Have you seen any polar bears?
No, they aren’t often close to town even though the archipelago is home to several thousand polar bears. Which means you can’t leave town without a rifle and a flare. Since they are a protected species, the idea is to be able to scare them away. If you do shoot one, there will be a major investigation where you have to prove it was in self-defense.
But I have seen reindeer! One of the first mornings I looked out the kitchen window and saw one – and completely forgot about my coffee (which is saying a lot!). I took about a hundred pictures. A few days later I realized that reindeer are in and around Longyearbyen every day – much the way squirrels are in Massachusetts. But I still stop and take pictures of the reindeer when I see them, marking myself off as someone who isn’t from here.
So, when writing a book about a high school kid living in Longyearbyen, I’ll have to have them ignore the reindeer, drive a snowmobile to school, know how to tell a fox track from a husky track and to wear jeans around town even when it’s -18°C. And to have them find something long buried in the ice when they are out on a glacier…
Born in the US, Dina von Lowenkraft has lived on 4 continents, worked as a graphic
artist for television and as a consultant in the fashion industry. She
is the Regional Advisor for SCBWI Belgium, where she lives with her
husband, two children, three horses and a cat. Her debut YA Fantasy,
DRAGON FIRE, was a finalist in ForeWord Reviews’ 2013 Book of the Year
Award, in the 2014 Eric Hoffer Award and in the 2014 Readers’ Favorite