Wednesday, February 25, 2015

New York, New York! Part 2

I wrote a part 1 about my time at the SCBWI conference in NYC, so I guess that necessitates a part 2. If you don’t have time to read this whole thing, here’s a summary: either great things are going to happen, or I’m going to die because my brain explodes.

So, first a note about the conference itself—everything I attended fell into three categories: critique, industry information, and inspiration. Some of the things fell into more than one category.

Some things that surprised me in a good way:

  1. Many of the agents and editors were way more approachable than I expected. There is definitely a prevailing thought that industry insiders are aloof and too busy to smile. Not true at all. Some of them were less approachable, but it came off more as personality type, not ivory tower snootiness.
  2. Some of the authors I have stalked idolized read have no idea how famous they are, or at the very least, fame seems to have had less of an effect on them than other “celebrities.” (On a related note, it must be exhausting being that nice to so many weird fangirly people.)

Some things that surprised me in a bad way:

  1. A disturbing number of people like to eat bagels+lox+capers at 8:30 in the morning.
  2. No one offered to publish my book on the spot. (I MEAN, IT’S BRILLIANT.)

Okay, just kidding. I’m not surprised that no one offered to publish my book. That’s not how these things work. But seriously, people. What is up with the lox and capers thing?

NOT breakfast despite what this blogger and many others believe. Gross.
So, what now?

Well, I have this book, and I think it’s a really good book. Based on the information I gleaned from sessions about writing, critiques with agents and editors, and panels, I think my book is ready for the market for three main reasons.

  1. The market is begging for diversity. (See #WeNeedDiverseBooks on Twitter.) My book is set in Ghana and Togo and chronicles the relationship between two Ghanaian girls and two American boys who are visiting them. I am relatively knowledgeable about what is on the shelves for children—I’ve spent half my life sitting in the children’s section of bookstores and libraries done extensive research about what is out there for kids re: stories about Africa, and I think there is room for my book. In our house, we’ve read picture books like I Lost My Tooth in Africa by Penda Diakite and Baba Wague Diakite (set in Mali) and Boundless Grace by Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch (set in Gambia). I’m familiar with what the middle grade world has to offer re: African stories, and it is overwhelmingly stories about Egypt and South Africa. Anthony Horowitz (who was a pretty dynamic speaker at the conference) set one of his Alex Rider books in Kenya. I have yet to find a successful middle grade novel set in Ghana and/or Togo (please let me know if you know of one because I’d like to read it!). There are other great books out there about Africa, but as I have said before, Africa is a continent made up of many diverse countries/people groups, and I’m on a personal mission to stop this nonsense where we talk about Africa as one big ambiguous place.
  2. The second thing I heard that comes as no surprise is that agents and editors are looking for something “brilliant and original.” Here’s the truth about writing—we’re all writing the same story over and over and over again. There are only really about five themes that get tossed around and spit-shined into something “new.” My book is about family and friendship and traveling. It’s about breaking down stereotypes and personal biases after being exposed to new information. It’s about a clash of cultures so to speak, but I attempt to offer balance in perspectives through multiple narrators. This isn’t a story about people from the West traversing the “dark continent”—that’s been done far too many times (and is frankly offensive), and our world is ready for nuance. I believe my book provides a fresh take; it’s a story that needs to be told.
  3. Jordan Brown, senior editor for HarperCollins Children’s said in his “Seven Rules for Writing Middle Grade” session that there aren’t actually any rules. There are some significant suggestions based on what the industry tends to publish, but the overwhelming theme of his talk was “You can do anything you want, as long as it works.” For every “convention” out there that tells me what not to do, I can find you an example of a book that defies that convention. Don’t start a book with dialogue—oops, Charlotte’s Web. Narrators can’t be dead—oops, The Lovely Bones and Before I Fall and Thirteen Reasons Why. Middle grade MUST be completely plot-driven—oops, Kwame Alexander just won the Newbery for his book The Crossover, and the plot is tertiary to the character development/family dynamic and the beautiful verse in which it’s written. I’ve taken some risks with my book—it’s set in Africa; it has multiple narrators; it relies heavily on characters over plot (not that the plot is lacking, but it lacks some of the BOOM POW action/crazy twists/comedy of errors plot elements that are found in much of what is being published in middle grade right now). Bottom line: I still think it works, and I think it works well enough to start querying agents.

My current plan of action is this: 

  1. Make more lists because this post does not have enough lists.
  2. Spend this week going over all my notes/business cards/handouts from the conference.
  3. Spend the next two weeks working on tightening the beginning of the book and doing a major revision of the last two-thirds of the book (while balancing family/Somebody’s Mama/sub jobs).
  4. Attend one more conference in March, and then spend the rest of the month querying agents.

It’s an odd feeling sitting on this kind of energy. One minute, I feel like a cast member from Girl, Interrupted and the next I feel like Hermione punching Draco in The Prisoner of Azkaban—I, of course, am Hermione, and Draco is all the serious doubts and insecurities telling me my book sucks and I should just go get a job at Burger King.

So, that’s all I’ve got right now. I’m working closely with a couple of beta-readers who are picking apart my book line by line, and I’m sitting down every day to work. Wish me luck!

Friday, February 6, 2015

New York, New York! Part 1

Traveling alone is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Traveling alone to NYC for a writing conference—well now, get on back. I realized in sitting down to write this post that I essentially started blogging because I was inspired by a trip to NYC (which you can read here and here and here because it’s three parts and ridiculously long because I didn’t understand how blogging works). So, this feels all sorts of full circle right now. 

I’m writing this post for my mom, who is nearly bursting because she needs to know everysingledetailabouteverythingrightthissecond, and for Sarah, who wants to know why I’m not posting all over Facebook. 

I left Belleville Thursday afternoon via Metro to fly from St. Louis to New York City. I settled in with a book (The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau for the sake of anyone interested) for the hour-long ride. On the very next stop, a man got on, sat directly in front of me, and proceeded to pen the great American novel via text WITH ALL OF THE SOUNDS ON HIS PHONE TURNED ON. All of them. Oh, and it was a flip phone, like the very first cell phone I ever had a million years ago, so every single button was deep deep deeping. Forty-five minutes into the ride, I developed a tick and used every ounce of energy in my body to not grab the phone out of his hands and throw it out the doors right before the lady voice said “Please stand clear, doors closing” at the next stop.

Luckily, he got off before I had a chance, and at that stop, another man got on and sat on the opposite side of the aisle two rows in front of me and immediately started barfing all over the train floor. The rocking of the train and angle of the floor spread his reverse liquid lunch in a ten-foot radius.

So, um, rough start.
HOWEVER, I breezed through security (already checked in and carrying on) to find my flight delayed. I got out my mental juicer and made quick use of those lemons (or in this case limes) by enjoying a giant margarita while I waited.

The flight was uneventful, and more importantly, my seatmate was THE PERFECT TRAVEL COMPANION—and by perfect, I mean the only conversation we had the entire flight was when I said, “That’s me” when I pointed at my window seat, so he would stand up for me to scoot by. I take that back—he made a cooing sound (really, like a happy baby) as we were landing and pointed out the window as we passed New York City At Night. We smiled dopily together at the Statue of Liberty, and he cemented the fact that he was my people. 

By the time I got to my hotel, it was almost 10 o’clock. Let me tell you—I can not say enough about how awesome this hotel is. The concierge looks like Bo Jackson—like this Bo Jackson from 1986. I have no idea what 2015 Bo Jackson looks like.
The manager on duty called me over and then apologized for the smell and told Bo to tell the potheads outside the main door to move on down the road. I told her, “No worries. I just lived in Washington state for three years. If anything, it makes me nostalgic for home.”

Okay, wait—let me go back to why the hotel is awesome. So, my “pod” is teeny tiny and so efficient, and if I had a mini-fridge, I could just move in here full-time.
I'm standing on my bed in this picture. Otherwise, the selfie
looked like a floating head due to my short stature.
I closed these blinds because I was feeling a little Rear Windowish.
Downstairs is this hip restaurant/bar called Salvation Taco, and there are jars of peppers and Jesus statues everywhere. I told the waiter I was starving but needed something that wouldn’t give me indigestion because I’m an old lady I needed a snack. He suggested the al carbon quesadillas but warned me that they were a little spicy. Aaaaaaaaand, I ordered another margarita because I’m on vacation, and nobody is the boss of me. (P. S. New York spicy is not spicy. It’s weeny crybaby spicy, but the quesadilla+tomatillo salsa was still amazeboobs.)
Snapped a picture at the last minute because everyone else
in the restaurant was doing it, and I was trying to fit in.
So many holy pepper jars.
After inhaling my snack, I inched my way out of the restaurant through the throng of beautiful people (men in their late 20s with light brown dress shoes and pocket squares and women with Brazilian blow outs) to make it back up to my room. 

I prepared for the next morning by laying out my clothes and lining up all my toiletries in my cutesie little bathroom and crawled into bed. I called my boys to say goodnight and then flipped on the TV. 
Allow me a moment to love them more than everything.
After scanning the late night drivel, I turned it off and willed myself to sleep. Unsuccessful. What if I came on the wrong day, and no one is there tomorrow? (Turn on phone; check email; confirm dates.) What if I take out my pages at the roundtable and find out I printed the wrong pages? (Get out of bed; check pages; place pages back in bag.) What if there’s a fire in the middle of the night, and in my haste to not be burned alive, I run out into the frigid New York night in nothing but these sleep pants and this flimsy nearly see-through t-shirt I brought because it’s sooooooooooooooo comfortable but now all the hip guests in this fancy hotel will see my old lady nipples? (Get out of bed, pull suitcase out from under the bed; pull out sweater just in case.)

Somewhere between ridiculously late and ridiculously early, I fell asleep and woke back up and dressed in what I thought would say, “Hey, no big deal. I’m a writer, and I take this very seriously, but I also like to be comfortable, and we writer types who do this all the time know how cold these hotel ballrooms can be, amIright?” I regret to inform you that I did not take a picture of said outfit, so you’ll just have to take my word(s) for it.

The conference went like this:

7:45 Smile and introduce myself. “You need to go to the writer check in. This is for illustrators.”
7:45:30 Smile and introduce myself. “Registration opens at 8:00.”
7:47 Stand in the bathroom taking down and putting up my very casual top knot over and over and over and over in an effort to look effortless.
7:50 Get a piece of pound cake and a black coffee and stand near people I don’t know hoping they talk to me.
7:51 Talk to Lois, David, and Jodie and burn my mouth with coffee.
8:00 Be fourth person in line to get packet. Organize the million sheets of paper and find my place at table #9. Meet my tablemates and panic because I’m the only one not wearing purple.
8:30 Sigh with relief when other tablemates arrive and are not wearing purple.
9:00 Stop chatting and listen to panel of real live human agents discussing queries.
10:15 Round table with real live human agent and seven other participants. Receive feedback. Give feedback. Feel generally in love with the world.
12:30 Business lunch with Becky Straw, co-founder of The Adventure Project, current partner for Somebody’s Mama’s quarterly project. Forget to take a picture with her, but it totally happened.
1:45 Second round table with real live human editor. Halfway through, fidget with earring, lose earring back. During break, climb under table to find it, aiming backside at said editor. Give up finding earring back because realize look like insane person. At end of session, editor finds earring back under her chair and graciously hands it back.
3:45 Tweet at editor apology for climbing under table and put phone away in time to listen to panel of real live editors talk about manuscript revisions.
5:00 Pack up bag and feel generally in love with the world.

Part of me really wanted to find a cohort for dinner, but most of me was exhausted from interacting with real live humans for nine hours and fifteen minutes in one stretch, so I headed to dinner alone at the Italian joint across from my cutesie hotel. I had pinot grigio and fettucine alfredo (basically the adult version of grape juice and mac&cheese) and walked back across the street to prepare for Saturday’s festivities.

I still have two days at this conference, so stay tuned for another installment of “It’s been so long since I blogged regularly that I forgot that you can’t write pieces this long and expect people to read them.” 

In summary at the halfway point of this getaway, I can’t believe this is my life.