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!

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