What is it about your favorite novel that makes it your favorite? For me, it’s a few things.
I love a likable character, one to which I can relate. One that makes me feel what he or she feels, that makes me believe what he or she is going through is real. I want to live whatever life they are living. I want to experience everything they experience, both the good and the bad. I want to be transported into their world…
Which leads to my second point…
I love books with believable worlds, where the author has done a fantastic job at world building. I want to believe the place truly exist, that the rules and laws the writer has established are well thought out. I want to feel as if I am a part of that world.
I love novels that paint vivid descriptions. A novel that transports me to a particular time and space so that I feel the cold and hear the hard-packed frozen earth crunch underneath heavy footsteps. A novel that allows me to hear a twig snap in the otherwise quiet wilderness.
I love to read books that are packed with action and filled with emotion.
And perhaps most importantly, I don’t want my favorite books to end.
So, what does all this have to do with rewriting? Well, as a more seasoned writer who has learned through trial and error and a lot of heart ache to embrace my characters and to live and grow with them, the rationalization behind it is simple. Know what you love about a novel and then strive through the rewriting process to ensure that your work mimics the work of those novels.
BUT…..BUT…BUT… It wasn’t always that easy!
When I first began to write creatively I was asked by my critique group what my main character was thinking and feeling and what he smelled as he walked through the kitchen. They wanted to know what? I sure as heck didn’t know the answers. And as embarrassing as it is now for me to admit, I really didn’t care. Because, like… how would those answers have anything to do with my story? I’d thought I’d gotten involved with a bunch of crazies. Thankfully, I continued attending the critique sessions, continued to read and to write, although thoroughly confused about what it was they were asking of me.
It wasn’t until I was writing a story about a guy in a wheelchair that I got what they were talking about. I easily became the main character in my story. Why? Because I use a wheelchair in real life. I was able to relate, able to understand what he was going through. Little by little, over the course of weeks and months that followed, I learned how to get close to all of my characters in that same way, learned it was vital to include the type of sensory details my writer’s group had asked for me to include.
Now, I always ask my characters the same questions my writer’s group asked me. Those, and a lot more. I ask my characters what they know, what they love, what they think and what they feel. I ask them why and what and how. If they don’t give me the answer that I need, I ask again. And again. I think of them as children, children who do not always want to be forthright with the answers to my question. (Those of you with kids of your own will easily understand.) Eventually, I find the answers I need, although it may not always be what I expect or what I am looking for. I let my characters guide me. I let them tell the story.
Recently, while writing the first draft of my latest novel, I introduced a character into the beginning of the story, but finished that draft without using him again. Something was wrong with that picture. His appearance in the beginning was too important for him to be ignored. I didn’t lose sleep over this particular fact, and eventually, about one half of the way through my second rewrite, while brushing my teeth no less, he spoke to me. He told me how he was to be used. His answer was as clear as if I were living through him, or he, through me. I knew when he was to reappear. Where it would happen. How it would happen. How often it would happen.
Whether good or bad, while rewriting, I often find myself living in another world, the world I’ve created. At times, when driving, I find I’ve driven miles without remembering the actual drive because I’m living different scenes of my novel. Sometimes, my children, or my wife (this is when it can get bad), accuse me of not paying attention, of not listening to what they have to say. Of course, I deny it, but I know it’s true. And for those times when I’m smack in the middle of creative thought, I accept it as necessary because then, and only then, am I able to embrace the rewrite so that my writing will then become like the novels I love to read.
A psychologist would probably tell me the ideas that come my way are courtesy of my subconscious. They’d say I was crazy if I’d tell them my characters spoke to me. I’d tell them that’s only because they’re not listening.
There are plenty of traditional routes towards getting published, and when I started shopping out my manuscript for The Order of the Key, Book 1 of my series, Keys and Guardians, I systematically went through all of them.
- Cold query agents? Check!
- Spend hundreds on an informative Writer’s Conference with the added benefit of pitching to various agents? Check (thanks to my day job’s Christmas bonus)!
- Chatted with an agent I met? Check (Lesson: I’m awkward. My husband is MORE awkward.)!
- Ask published writer buddy to hook a sister up? Check!
- Cold submit directly to small presses? Checkity-check!
I was hitting brick walls left and right. Even when I got a step closer, pitches leading to partial manuscripts ended up leading to zilch. I wasn’t at it for very long, but I’ll admit that I was beginning to get discouraged. I’m an efficient organizer, which means that in six short months I managed to rack up an impressive number of rejections.
I don’t want to give you that number. It feels like failure even though you know it’s not necessarily about the story, but a question of agent/publisher taste.
I had just gotten through a conversation with a writer friend, asking him if he would be game for a second round of beta reads (he had been unavailable for the first set) because I was beginning to think something was wrong with the story. I actually said, “When this next round of rejections comes in…” with absolute certainty. I hadn’t given up. Order wasn’t going back on the shelf. I just had to admit it was time for a new plan of attack.
And then came Twitter’s Sci-Fi Fantasy Pitch Event, #SFFPit. I didn’t plan for it. I didn’t even know it was happening until the day of the event. That morning, I plugged in a really bad, cut down version of my logline and tweeted. Nothing. Radio silence. I wasn’t surprised. What could a tweet do for me? I didn’t see how I could sum up my story in 140 characters when I had a hard enough time writing a two page synopsis. I expected nothing.
I did a quick Twitter check before I left my desk at my day job and saw that some people were still accepting twit pitches in earlier time zones. Shrugging on my coat, I lazily tapped out a tweet that felt more like commercial copy than an actual pitch.
— Justine Manzano (@justine_manzano) December 9, 2014
You see that Favorite? That one lonely favorite? Can you imagine what I could have accomplished if I put a little more thought into it? It didn’t matter though. What mattered was that my publisher saw something they liked. That’s right. I said MY PUBLISHER. This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
The lesson here lies in my question. What could I do with a tweet? I could get myself published, that’s what. Every little opportunity that crosses your path is a shot. All of those things I mentioned up at the top? All valid methods of getting an agent or a publisher. But so was the one thing I thought would do nothing for me.
Keep your eyes open. Be mindful. If you see even the most paper thin thread hanging, grab it and see if you can climb your way to the top. It may not hold you at all, or it may carry you just long enough to grab a thicker rope. But you’ll never know if you just leave it dangling.
Justine Manzano is a multi-genre writer living in Bronx, NY with her husband, son, and a cacophony of cats. She maintains a semi-monthly blog at JustineManzano.com and a twitter account @justine_manzano, where she discusses her adventures in juggling motherhood, writing, and the very serious businesses of fangirling and multiple forms of geekery. The Order of the Key, the first book of her YA Fantasy series Keys and Guardians has been contracted for publication by Distinguished Press and will be available for purchase in Summer 2015.
I’ve loved to write since I was in elementary school. There was nothing better than arriving at school to find out that our morning assignment was to write a story. My friends and I begged my third grade teacher to let us take our notebooks out to recess so that we could work on our stories. I spent summers with a pile of paper and a box of crayons creating books that I bound with yarn. I filled several spiral notebooks a school year.
Then I grew up. Suddenly, writing became a little more intense. I started getting graded for what I wrote. I learned about deadlines. I was forced to share my work with other people. I found out that you almost never write the perfect story the first time around, and there is always something to revise. I started submitting my work to agents. My email inbox started overflowing with rejection letters. All of the sudden, I didn’t really love writing anymore. In fact, about six months ago, I sat down in front of my computer after working two jobs and typed three words: I hate writing. Then I walked away from desk and didn’t return.
I didn’t write for three months. I helped the student athletes I tutored brainstorm ideas and edit their papers and essays without wondering about my own writing. I celebrated my writer friends’ accomplishments without worrying about whether I was doing enough to be successful. Best of all, I read. I read newspapers, blogs, and short stories. Some weeks I would read three or four books. I read so many YA novels that I wish I had been eligible for the monthly reading contest for teens at my local library. I would have dominated those kids.
It was in the midst of one of these YA novels that I suddenly remembered why I started writing all those years ago.
Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell is a YA book about two teenagers living in Omaha in 1986. These two misfits are forced to sit by each other on the school bus and eventually fall for each other.
This book made me remember the wonderful, terrifying emotions that come with being young and in love for the first time. There were some tough issues these two lovebirds had to deal with that I never had to experience in my real life. But after I finished reading the book, I felt like I had.
I started writing because I wanted to experience things I could only dream about. I started writing because I loved creating characters and situations and figuring out what happened with them. I liked that often times the characters you created taught you something about yourself. I enjoyed that I could rewrite the outcome of past experiences.
It turned out I didn’t actually hate writing. I did not enjoy the process of securing an agent. I hated deadlines and being told what I could and couldn’t do. I hated that I had revised my novel for two years and it still wasn’t good enough.
I started writing for myself. I wrote without worrying what an agent would say or what people would think. Some days I wrote for two hours. Other days I wrote for ten minutes. Sometimes I wrote with pen and paper and drew scenes in the margins.
The reality is that my current writing habits are not going to advance my writing career. Everything I wrote needs revision. I probably should be writing more often. I know that I will face the exhaustion and rejection again. Next time, I want to be ready.
So for now, I’m taking the time to remember all the reasons I love to write.
Kathleen Ingraham is a 2011 graduate of the Solstice MFA Program at Pine Manor College and currently works for a printing company in Lawrence, Kansas. Her work has appeared in Sucker Literary Volume 2 and Chicken Soup for the Soul. Follow her on twitter: @K_Leen
Give me YA any day—although I cross all lines of genre, age, and interest. After more years than I care to reveal, my prolific endeavors may—let me repeat that—may be on the way to success. If adversity teaches us to grow, I should be ten feet tall by now. Instead of five feet two inches. But enough about me.
Growing up, we had this grocery store chain, the A&P. Never did know what those initials meant. Artichokes & Plums? Anchovies & Persimmons? Whatever. At this point I’m going for Angst & Perseverance, the words that characterize my publishing journey.
The day I got my (first) agent, I celebrated. Called everyone, changed my Facebook status, knew that success was a mere signature on the virtual line away. Instead: Agent #1 got fired. Agent #2 became ill. Agent #3 also got fired. Agent #4 took a non-agent job.
Which means at present I am swimming in the slush pool once again. Is this a sign? It is time to simply write for my own pleasure? That’s the angst whispering into my ear. While perseverance shouts at me to keep going.
Even beyond my agent issues, there have been publishing potholes big enough to swallow more than one manuscript. Yes, I have persevered…only to run into that blasted angst over and over again.
I started with a slew of rejections. There were the bad ones: no answer or, “Dear Author.” The good ones: great story but not right for my list. And my favorite response for Mystery at Bikers’ Rest: “The mystery distracted me from the story.” Huh?
Then, success! My initial sale, a trilogy no less, got a great editor. We completed work on the first book. I drank a Corona with lime and chose a killer dress for my book launch party. At this point the publisher’s parent company had industry-related problems; nothing personal. Except that several projects got cancelled. Including mine. Angst, anyone?
Then I co-authored a series, and we sold it. First edits were finished. And the publishers decided their vision of my character was better than mine. A double helping of angst, hold the whipped cream and cherry.
Perseverance kicked in. The book sold to another publisher. It should come out this year. And my trilogy is back on the market. (Feel free to contact me, all you hungry publishers out there.)
So here I am. Several projects are submitted. I have a huge backlog of work and an almost-completed historical fiction YA. Plus sparks flying in my brain for the next project. That’s the good news. But I have no agent, no editor, and no real clue what comes next. Angst-ville.
And that is exactly where writers are at their best. Without problems, we really don’t learn much. I now understand contracts, fine print, trust, and industry standards. Good stuff.
I’ve also harnessed the feelings associated with each rebuff. My work-in-progress protagonist displays deep anxiety and dread, aka angst. I know how it feels, and I’m able to show it. Rejection? Check. Betrayal? Check. Happenstance? Check. The negatives become positives as I use them to mine the depths of my characters’ psyches. Which makes me a better writer, and (hopefully) attracts the agents and publishers I need.
The same is true for perseverance. Every book involves at least one major conflict and several minor ones. If the characters folded at the first sign of a challenge, the book would end by paragraph two. When I soldier on in spite of delays and lack of immediate success, I am able to create characters that have the same ability.
Do I enjoy the angst inherent in getting published? Nope. Do I long to persevere in the face of adversity? No way. Am I willing to accept whatever comes with the business of writing? Oh, yes. Because I will write, published or not. I would just prefer to get my file cabinet full of manuscripts into the hands of readers. They’re the ones who really count.
And they, too, can learn from my process.
The A&P grocery is gone from our community. The memory lives on. And just maybe, instead of pushing my cart down the aisle marked Angst & Perseverance, I will set my sights on Acceptance & Promise.
And when you see my name on a shelf at the bookstore, know that I’m hoisting a Corona—with double lime.
Last Saturday night, during dinner of left-over Chinese food, my husband asked me about my writing and if I’ve heard from my agent, adding with great, walking-on-eggshells care, “You haven’t mentioned any of it in a while…and you seem so calm lately.”
Translated: Thank God you took a break from all that. You are so much easier to live with.
Let me step back a bit, a few months ago, I told my agent that I was taking a break from revising the current project that we had been working on…I gave a really good and valid reason: I’m taking a class and doing an internship right now and need to focus on that. I will have the whole summer to finish the revision and get it back to her.
Legit and solid plan. Not to mention, excellent for my mental health. This particular manuscript was already on its 6th or 7th rewrite, and I had at least one or two more to go. Artistically, I needed a break…hell, mental health-wise I needed a break.
So, back to our dinner conversation…
I looked everywhere but at him. Pile of dirt dishes in the sink. Senior citizen cat attempting to clean himself. A piece of crusted over jam on the table from breakfast that morning.
It got so quiet that the only sounds were chewing and silverware clinking noises…and the cat still trying to lick his hindquarters.
I finally made an mmmmhmmm noise. But then all the noises stopped. He was waiting. He wanted more. He knew there was more.
So I put my fork down and I whispered, staring at that damn spot of jam, “I’m afraid.”
Then I finally looked up at him, and he nodded, understanding in a way that only a spouse of 16 years, and a partner of 22, can.
That’s all we really said.
But it got me thinking.
I AM afraid to go back at it with this manuscript. And, I have been a lot happier since I stopped working on it.
I’m 39 years old, with 16 years of experience in the writing and publishing arena; I’m no longer doe-eyed about this process. I’m f@#$ing tired.
My ultimate goal as a writer is to be published. I’ve achieved that. My ultimate, ultimate goal, is to get a book deal—not for the money or fame—‘cause FYI, there’s none of either in publishing unless you are already famous. No, I’ve wanted it for a kind of validation and yes, a reward for hard work done.
So what am I afraid of in terms of revising this particular piece? That this time will be the time that I give up. That I will revise this manuscript (number 5 of 10 total) and that this rejection will be the one that ends it for me. The one that makes me give up… because I’m f%$*ing tired and because I like being happy, which I have been for the last few months, for the first time in so long because I haven’t had the albatross on my back of revising and knowing that most likely the revision won’t lead to a yes.
Oh and you should know this…these three months of not revising have included other writing-related things. I submitted another manuscript to a contest. I republished one of my self-published Maddie books. I started this blog. I know exactly why none of that made me feel depressed: I didn’t do any of those things with the hope or dream of book deal in mind. My intention with all of those things was to simply share my voice with others.
It’s not writing that makes me feel like shit. It’s constantly revising towards something that I don’t really know exactly what it is… and then getting rejected. Writing with the intention to get a book deal has started to wear on me. I’ve been telling myself all these years, this is just part of the process and most writers take a while to get their first book published. All of that is true, but it does not take away from what I feel and how this whole thing has affected me.
And yet, my plan is to go back to that manuscript, revise the sh$t out of it, submit to my agent, fingers crossed…and stay in therapy the whole time : )
For a debut author, receiving an offer of representation from a literary agent is a huge moment. Once you have an agent, you have it all, right? Validation. Security. A six-figure deal and movie option.
Well, sort of.
The reality is, agents don’t always work out. Some quit the business. Others switch agencies and/or genres, which may mean they no longer service their existing clients. Others do a poor job of selling their clients’ books.
And in other cases, a particular author and a particular agent just don’t mesh.
That’s what happened to me. I’d received an offer of representation for my debut novel, the YA science-fiction adventure SURVIVAL COLONY 9. The offering agent seemed perfect: she was enthusiastic about the book, knowledgeable in the field, connected to the right people. I signed the contract, revised the manuscript per her notes, and then. . . .
Then I’m not sure what. I didn’t hear from her for a long time, which was odd; we’d been communicating regularly up to that point. When she finally got back to me, the news was grim: the revised manuscript “needed work,” she told me. Lots of work. Professional editorial work, to the tune of $5000. I told her I didn’t have that kind of money. She told me she wouldn’t send the manuscript out on submission until I had it professionally edited.
So I fired her.
Well, okay, maybe fired is the wrong word, inasmuch as she wasn’t my employee. Technically, I exercised the termination clause in our contract. But it sounds way cooler to say I fired someone.
To this day, I have no idea what went wrong. Maybe she lost interest and was trying to drive me away. Maybe this was some kind of kickback scheme whereby she’d take a cut of the editor’s fee. (Such schemes do exist.) Maybe someone higher up instructed her to focus on another project. Who knows?
Or maybe we just weren’t suited for each other, and the relationship wasn’t meant to be.
Two valuable lessons here.
First, if you’re ever in a comparable situation, don’t make the mistake of thinking there’s something wrong with you (or your manuscript). Many writers go through multiple agents before finding the right one. It’s a normal part of the business, a normal part of human interaction. Just as fifty percent of marriages fail, so do a certain percentage of author-agent relationships.
Second, if this happens to you, don’t make the mistake of clinging to a failed relationship in hopes that it’ll improve. In all likelihood, it won’t. The real reason authors, especially debut authors, cling to such relationships is that they’re afraid they’ll never find another agent. But that’s not true. If one agent liked your book enough to represent it, another agent will. So be honest with yourself. Admit the relationship isn’t working. Then cut your losses and move on.
That’s what I did. And in short order I had a new agent, an offer on my novel, and a book to hold in my hands.
Plus, I get to go around telling people I fired someone.
When I got my agent in 2010, I believed I was on a (quick) path to my publishing dreams. That same year, my husband and I decided to start a family. Everything felt right. I was poised for publishing success and soon we’d have a child or two to add to our lives.
When the book didn’t sell right away, I told myself it would eventually. When I didn’t get pregnant right away, I didn’t worry too much about it. Everyone said these things take time.
When my agent told me she was taking the book off active submission in 2011, I was disappointed, but I was working on another book. I felt sure success would follow. We sought our first appointment with my doctor that year and pursued more aggressive means to conceive. I still felt sure pregnancy was right around the corner. I had friends who had been through various stages of infertility. They assured me things would progress.
2012 brought an early miscarriage. My doctor said this was a good sign, even in the midst of that pain. Now we knew I could get pregnant. We made the decision to pursue in vitro fertilization after wrestling with our personal beliefs and emotions. I continued to write through this season. Friends and family were having kids. Writers I knew were getting published. Our four rounds of IVF resulted in no pregnancies.
I sent a new manuscript to my agent at the beginning of 2013, a dystopian novel along the lines of those so popular at the time. After reading it closely and getting an outside opinion, she informed me she didn’t think she could sell it at this time. Editors were ready to see something new, not more dystopian. She encouraged me to take some time and examine what books were on the shelves. She also left the option of staying with her or pursuing another path to publication up to me.
It was time for some soul-searching. I was feeling the heavy hand of rejection, and it felt like my body was agreeing, too. Did I really want to be a writer? Did I really want to be a mother? Was I willing to consider new paths to both of these goals? Ultimately, I decided I still liked my agent’s vision for my work. I chose to stay with her and pitched a new idea.
In early 2014, I sent my new middle grade mystery to my agent. I felt certain THIS was THE book. She loved it and submitted right away. I decided to take some time off from pursuing pregnancy in the medical community and look at more natural ways to figure out what was going on. I felt hopeful once again that things were moving in the right direction.
Then the rejections started rolling in. Many of them were encouraging. The editors loved the characters. The idea was unique. But none jumped at the opportunity to add this story to their list. I was disappointed again not to have that immediate success. My agent has continued to submit the book. I’m hopeful someone will pick it up in 2015, but I now know I must be in this writing gig for the long haul, whether it takes another five, ten or twenty years. In the meantime, we’ve also started the process of adoption.
The last five years haven’t been easy in writing or life, but they haven’t been devoid of joy, either. I have a great support system around me, beginning with my husband, friends and family who believe in what I’m doing, even if I haven’t published a book yet. I have a niece and nephews who are a huge part of my life. I have a deep belief in my faith, that God knows my disappointments and my desires, and that ultimately, through these challenges, He is working all things for good.
These are the things that bring me back to my desk, that keep me committed to my agent and the writing life, and that encourage me to pursue life to its fullest, even when it doesn’t look as I’d imagined.
Kimberly Mitchell is pursuing writing and life in Northwest Arkansas. When she’s not writing middle grade fiction or teaching preschool fitness, she’s cheering on the Razorbacks, playing soccer, and scheming ways to travel the world. Follow her on Twitter @KSMitch17 and check out her blog for updates on all of the above.
The last time I blogged about my publication journey I shared my beginnings…how I got into this game. If you missed that part of the saga, feel free to hop into the way-back machine and read that post here.
Needless to say, by the beginning of 2012, I had a self-published debut novel and no one seemed to notice. I know, cry me a river, right? Still, I’m not one to sit down and feel sorry for myself–I’m a do-er. Meaning, in my mind there isn’t any problem I can’t solve if I work hard. So I hone my marketing skills, I try Kindle promos, I go on blog tours. Everywhere I go I’m approaching strangers saying: “Hi, I’m Stephanie Keyes, did you know I have a book out?” or “Hi, I’m Stephanie Keyes–let me tell you about my debut novel.” And I sold several hundred copies of The Star Child that way.
And again, I still felt alone, like I did before. But there was something new. Something worse.
I hated myself!
I hated the person I’d somehow morphed into. I mean, I’m the person who goes out of her way to avoid all salespeople like the plague. There’s selling and then there’s being pushy. It just wasn’t me.
Rewind. I took a step back and asked myself: “Self, what do you really want to do?” The resounding answer was: “WRITE, PLEASE!” That answer became key. I wasn’t desperate for more time to market my work or for more hours on Twitter–I was killing myself on social media and doing all sorts of things that (SURPRISE!) I also hated. No, my answer was and still is, writing. That’s the most important thing.
What happened next was both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time…I decided to query small presses. Yes, my book was out there, yes it was selling, but I knew it could do more. Beyond that, I wanted to work with a publisher, learn from a publisher, grow as a writer. I needed someone else in my corner so I could spend time writing.
Out went two queries. One ended in a requisition. The other results in a request for a full manuscript. Now, I didn’t get excited about this. Truthfully, I expected a rejection. That’s not what I got.
Instead, I received…
Congratulations on your wonderful debut novel, The Star Child. We would like to offer you a publishing contract for…
The email came on a Monday at 11:10am from Inkspell Publishing. I still remember, because I was sitting at my desk at work. Some people might respond to similar messages with grace and calm. Not me. I started screaming. Now, let me add that screaming in an HR department doesn’t go down well. Most people thought someone had died or I was having a seizure–or both. Once I shared the email, however, there were about fifty people packed inside my mid-sized cubicle for an impromptu party.
It was so wonderful that I thought about doing this…
Only I couldn’t move my legs that way without seeking emergency medical care.
A week later, I signed a contract for The Star Child, which was later re-released under Inkspell Publishing on September 21, 2012. The Fallen Stars followed in (2013), After Faerie in (2013), The Star Catcher in (2013), and The Last Protector in (2014)–all with the same publisher who first took a chance on me.
Since my debut novel, I’ve written two other YA novels and an NA novel. Each one is in various stages of editing and/or submission to agents.
So…the whole publication path… Here’s what it boils down to:
- Time to write my debut novel: nine months
- Time to edit my debut novel: two years, eleven months
- Time to my first publishing contract: four years, three months
There you have it. That’s my story–for now. A wise agent once told me…there’s no right or wrong when it comes to your [publication] story. It’s just your story.
A lot has changed since I first got the idea for The Star Child years ago, but what hasn’t changed is that innermost truth–what defines me to the core.
I have to write.
I have to be true to myself.
As long as I’m doing those two things? Well, who knows what other adventures are waiting down the road?
When I first started writing, I wrote about white people.
Hands of ivory gripped plasma guns or wielded claymores and bastard swords in thrilling combat. Incantations for spells were uttered by pale-faced wizards. The captain at the helm of the starship I worked into my undeveloped space drama was of European descent, assuming Europe existed.
It’s only now, some fifteen years later, I realize it’s odd that I never considered writing about people who looked like me. I’m black, and it took well over a decade for someone of similar pigmentation to escape my pen.
There’s nothing wrong with white people. I work with them. They’re my neighbors. They’re pretty cool people. Some (most) of my favorite characters of all time were white. Captain Mal Reynolds in Firefly always charmed me with his roguish ways and dogged determination. I was enthralled by Danny Torrance’s struggle against paranormal forces and his own father in The Shining, then by his renewed conflict in Dr. Sleep. Ender Wiggins in Ender’s Game was a brutal little son of a bitch, but there was something I admired about how he reacted to the world’s molding of him into an extraordinary general.
But people who look like me, they exist, and they are doing important stuff. I never considered the notion that they could do so in MY works. I guess part of it had to do with what I saw when I came up. When I read the Hobbit, I knew it was about white folks. Short, hairy, dwarves and hobbits but still, white folks.
I know people who look like me that were the stars of all kinds of interesting stories. My dad used to regale me with stories about playing music in Detroit nightclubs. He told me he used to carry a Luger with him in his attaché because people thought musicians were easy marks. Somewhere in there is a protagonist waiting to have his story told, with his classy handgun and classier music. If that’s real life, why is fiction, especially speculative fiction, any different?
Whenever I picked up new epic fantasies or sci-fi anthologies to read as a kid, or a teenager, or as a desperate college student, there was always a melanin-challenged young man or woman adorning the cover, or implicitly in the context of the story. If the main character wasn’t an alien or some nondescript fictional race, they were white. You don’t often hear about dark-skinned elves. Unless they’re drow or something. Even then, they are still Caucasians. Caucasians with a coat of paint.
It never occurred to me that I could write about someone with darker skin. I didn’t break a mold because, hell, I didn’t know a mold existed. I just thought stories were about strapping young Irish or Anglo or Russian or Swedish people battling evil gods, or taking intergalactic road trips, or unlocking the secrets of magical artifacts. This predetermined mindset is why, if a black man or woman shows up in one of my stories, especially as a protagonist, it was a deliberate choice. I have to make myself do it, and it’s odd that as a black man, that’s my default setting.
I’m not a crusader for racial, sexual, or gender diversity in fiction. I don’t demand or expect authors to populate their stories with minorities to fill a quota, or turn their works into urban, or gay, or trans fiction just to attend to some fashionable need in speculative fiction. I’m just thinking that protagonists who look like me, or people who might be homosexual, or transgender, don’t have to be novelties. I don’t want a black person going on an epic quest to slay an ancient evil to be cause for celebration or deep introspection. Quite the opposite, in fact. Diverse protagonists should be so common as to be unremarkable. Especially for young adults such as myself fifteen years ago. It’s a disservice to people on the cusp of maturity that only one group can be the figurehead of their favorite stories.
If I can do something in this business, express my authority on the subject, then maybe a couple heroes will be able to walk outside without sunscreen, and no one will comment on it. Hopefully more young writers will do the same.
Fiction’s a mirror of life, and hey, there are a lot of different people in the real world driving events. I’m just writing what I see.
John McKeown is an aspiring fantasy/sci-fi author from Flint, Michigan, with a penchant for procrastination. As such, he is woefully unpublished. When he’s not writing about magic and economic collapse, he either rots his brain with video games or destroys his body via competitive martial arts. Follow him on Twitter @Outfoxd21
As of February of 2008, I could safely admit that I’d tried to write a book at least twenty-five times. Some of the earlier versions were even on a typewriter. Yikes! I’d had numerous ideas, numerous characters that I can no longer remember the names of, and even more extremely weak plots. The problem? I’d start writing and lose interest. What was going to happen to Character X’s (because of course I can no longer remember her name) life? Who the freak cares? Yeah, that’s pretty much what I thought.
Two things happened that changed that. One, the YA Fantasy explosion in the mainstream publishing market. Two, I got an idea. It turned out that my block about writing had nothing to do with my ideas–just my character’s gender. Yeah, you heard me right. Even though I’d obviously been a teenage girl once, I couldn’t imagine writing one. Instead, I decided to write about a seventeen-year-old boy who’s dreams are haunted by a girl in the beach in Ireland. Everyday, stuff. Right?
Nine months of furious writing followed, along with three years of intense editing, rewrites, and the painstaking creation of my “social media platform.” When I finally had a good copy in hand, I was ready. I signed up for the good ole’ Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City and Pitch Slam! And I just kew, with my carefully-maintained Outlook calendar and organized corporate background, that everyone would love my pitch.
They did. Every agent that I pitched to wanted pages. I was on a high.
It was only a matter of time now. I can even remember stepping into the elevator after Pitch Slam! I was on a total high, until he stepped on. Here’s how it went down…
The elevator doors bounced back open to accommodate an older man–I’d have placed him at around sixty. He brought with him the wafting odor of stale cigars, garlic, and pissy attitude.
The door shut after him. I jammed the “1” button again, if only to get away from the garlic. There’s seasoning and then there’s seasoning.
“You at the writer’s conference?” he asked me.
Crap. Now I had to talk. “Yeah.” Were we on the first floor yet? Why didn’t I take the stairs?”
“Did you do well?” he asked.
“Yeah. I mean all of the agents wanted pages. I was fortunate.”
“Good. I wouldn’t get excited about that though. This is my third conference. Every time they’ve asked me for pages and then I get rejected.”
The elevator dinged and he exited without a backward glance, leaving me hanging in the near-visible cloud of undesirable herbs and negativity. For just an instant his words crushed me. Then I brushed them off.
“That will never happen to me,” I said to the empty elevator.
And then it did.
I sent pages to all five agents who requested them. Every agent declined.
The declines were swift and not form letters. Still, they were declines. So I kept editing, kept honing this one manuscript that I believed in. I read about craft, studied blog posts on dialogue and YA romance, met other authors, and connected on Twitter.
By the time my second son was born in September (yeah, I did all of this while I was pregnant), I decided that I would self-publish. I found an editor, the lovely Kit Domino, to help me polish the manuscript. I located a cover artist, Cathy Helms at Avalon Graphics, to create the cover. My late-night reading, because I was up a lot with little “Bam-Bam,” consisted of blogs and books on how to format your manuscript for Ebook.
On December 15, 2011. I self-published The Star Child.
And nobody gave a rat’s ass.
There were no trumpets blaring in the streets. No parades in my honor. My husband bought a copy, but even my mom had to be reminded that it was my release day. All of my experience planning launches in my corporate life mattered not. This was a bigger wake-up call than anything that had happened to me before.
Had I done the right thing? Had I jumped the gun on pressing Publish? Yeah. I so did. Because of all things I’d learned, the one that was missing? Patience.
It would take me a publishing contract and a one-eighty realize that though. Curious? You’ll just have to hang in for my next post. Ha–gotcha!