Submission Material Feedback and How I Met This Year’s Newbery Medal Winner

Man oh man, lots has been going on.

Let’s Talk About the Agent Bootcamp

I got comments back on my query letter, synopsis and 9 pages of my manuscript. Much like every other time I’ve invested (money) in my writing, I do not regret it. It was incredibly helpful. In case you missed it, I participated in an Agent One on One Bootcamp to get some of my submission materials reviewed.

First, the agent said she really liked my synopsis and said it was the best she read in the Bootcamp! Woohoo! Of course the point of these programs is constructive criticism, but trust me, I will take any confidence booster I can get. This process is long and subjective and full of unknowns, so I was really happy when she said that. I even wrote a post about how to write a Synopsis for The Write Practice. 🙂

Then, she gave me some tips on my query letter. Generally, she said it was too long and detailed (mind you, the whole thing was four paragraphs), but she liked the bio. In my query, I mentioned that the manuscript is written in a format similar to Terry McMillan’s Disappearing Acts. So she replaced my summary with the blurb from that book and told me to use that as a guide. Doing so showed me that my summary in the query should be more about showing the tension between the characters than explaining exactly what happens. I’ve read a million things about query letters, but something about that comment made me finally get it.

How do I know I got it? Because one agent who I sent only the query (no sample pages or synopsis) asked for my entire manuscript. And this was straight from the slush pile. A couple of agents have read up to 100 pages of my manuscript, but I had met all of them in advance (at a writer’s retreat). I just cold called this lady and she responded based solely on this one letter. (For those of you who don’t know, the process usually consists of a request for a few chapters or the first 50 pages, and then a request for the full thing.) So now I feel pretty confident in my query, thank goodness.

Finally, she gave me some tips on my first pages, which was helpful because no one had read them before. I’ve re-written those things so many times now, I can’t even tell you what draft it is. This time I made sure there was some action. Seems obvious, but it’s much easier said than done—I think I got it though. (Ask me again in a month.)  Anyway, she said my manuscript was too contemporary for her, but recommended that I pitch one of her colleagues and if she passed, to try her again. 😀

About That Newbery Medal Winner…

Yeah, about that.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to this mini writer’s retreat in Bowie, Maryland. Basically it was just a bunch of local writers writing in the basement of Marita Golden—who has published over a dozen books—for 5 hours. It was a great, inspiring setting with about 6 or so writers and at the end we discussed what we were working on. One of the people I met was a guy named Kwame Alexander. He seemed like he knew he what he was doing, but honestly, so did everyone else in that room.

Little did I know that two days later he would win the NEWBERY MEDAL aka the most prestigious award for American literature for children!  I’M SERIOUS. To give you an idea, past winners and honorees include Beverly Clearly, E.B. White (for Charlotte’s Webb), Lois Lowry (The Giver), Fred Gipson (Old Yeller).

I’m so proud of him, and I would be even if I hadn’t met him. It should not be lost on any of the readers of this blog how important it is to have an African American winner of this award (and he’s D.C. based!). Children and adults all over the country (world?) will be reading this book (maybe even assigned it in school), and that’s amazing for readers and writers everywhere. I’m so happy!!

Kwame’s book is called The Crossover. Buy it!!

The Crossover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Week: Query-Writing Bootcamp

I wonder how much money I’ve spent on this noveling endeavor.  I’ve taken classes, hired a developmental editor, gone on retreats, entered contests, purchased Snowflake Pro. .. I do believe all of these things have made me and my manuscript better, but shite.  It’s adding up.  Maybe that’s why so many professionals have managed to write novels on the side.  They’re the only ones who can afford it!

Anyway, I bring this up because I have spent money again.

This time on an agent one-on-one Bootcamp through Writer’s Digest.  This is how it works:  you gain access to an online tutorial on query letters and other submission materials taught by two literary agents (Tuesday).  Then, over the next two days you revise accordingly.  You also gain access to a 3-hour discussion board on each day where the agents are required to answer everyone’s questions (Wednesday and Thursday).  On the final day, you submit your query letter and the first 10 pages of your manuscript (or the first 9 pages and a 1-page synopsis) for real-life agents to review (today).  They have two weeks to provide comments.

So that’s what I’ve been up to this week.  Learning, chatting, revising.  I bought the course because I’m at the submission stage and I knew my query needed work.  I wrote it 6 months ago and the experience was so tedious, it actually reminded me of the Law Review competition in law school! ::shudder::

For those of you who don’t know, after a year of enduring the most difficult year of law school and finishing all your finals and submitting all your papers- boom!  You’re asked to write another paper  for a chance to participate in a prestigious extracurricular activity- Law Review.  The competition was, literally, my worst experience in law school.  That’s what writing my query letter was like last summer.  I spent a year and a half writing and editing an entire novel, and when I was done, I had to write a letter that pitched and summarized both my story and myself in 3 paragraphs.  It was ridic.  It sucked.

I did the best I could at the time, but that’s not saying much.  So I figured the Bootcamp would provide me with useful feedback and, more importantly, motivate me to take another stab at the letter with fresh eyes.

I know for a fact my query is a lot better now.  For one thing, it’s more accurate.  Originally, I had been pitching this thing as a love story, now I describe it as a coming-of-age novel.  I also learned from the discussion board that first-time novelists should note if they have used a developmental editor in the query- who knew?  I asked the agents if they found it more difficult to pitch diverse characters/writers to editors.  They more or less said no.

Overall, I would say that the tutorial was fine, but I never would have paid for just that.  The value in this Bootcamp is the interactions with the agents and the feedback I will receive from them, as they read and judge these things literally every day. It also doesn’t hurt that my submission essentially doubles as a pitch.  The agents reserved the right to ask for more pages if they like you and it just so happens that the agency, Kimberley Cameron & Associates, was on my list.

So it’s been a productive week.  I should receive comments by Feb. 7th, and after incorporating the feedback, I will be back to pitching!  In case you’re wondering, yes, I do still have some minor revisions, but nothing crazy.  I’ll be done (again) soon!!

I’ll keep you posted!!

 

 

Thoughts on Publishing and Privilege

There has been a lot of talk about “privilege” lately. White privilege, male privilege, etc. I don’t know what that weird guy from Princeton was talking about, but what I mean by the term is the freedom not to worry that your race has put you at a disadvantage.

Wikipedia’s definition of privilege will do as well: “the right to assume the universality of one’s own experiences, marking others as different or exceptional while perceiving oneself as normal.”

I bring this up because this process of pitching my story to agents has made me feel very “unprivileged.”

I like subtlety. I like restraint. I like things that feel like real life. So as I sit here waiting to be judged by (mostly white) strangers, I can’t help but wonder—will they get me? Will they see what I’m trying to do? My manuscript is first and foremost the story of a relationship—about people of color. It’s neither a traditional love story, nor does it constantly make political commentary. A lot of people will get it, but will the people with the power? Will they believe that readers (white and nonwhite, male and female) will get it?

I came across several articles today that discuss this very issue. They linked from an NPR article about a #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign that emerged following a major book convention that had an all-white line up. My faves were one published on BuzzFeed that gets into the institutional problems in the publishing industry and another amazing piece written in The New Yorker by Junot Diaz.  I’d love to share some snippets with you…

The BuzzFeed article on the privilege issue:

“…Many of [the gifts and challenges of writers of color] won’t be seen or recognized within a white cultural context. Nuances of codeswitching, racial microaggressions, the emotional reality of surviving white supremacy, self-translation – these are all layers of the non-white experience that rarely make it into mainstream literature, even when the characters look like us.”

BuzzFeed on why diversity isn’t enough and what we need to do:

“We’re right to push for diversity, we have to, but it is only step one of a long journey. Lack of racial diversity is a symptom. The underlying illness is institutional racism. It walks hand in hand with sexism, cissexism, homophobia, and classism. To go beyond this same conversation we keep having, again and again, beyond tokens and quick fixes, requires us to look the illness in the face and destroy it. This is work for white people and people of color to do, sometimes together, sometimes apart. It’s work for writers, agents, editors, artists, fans, executives, interns, directors, and publicists. It’s work for reviewers, educators, administrators. It means taking courageous, real-world steps, not just changing mission statements or submissions guidelines.”

In The New Yorker, Diaz talks about how he struggled in his MFA program because stories that reflected non-white life were not considered to be literature:

“In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male. This white straight male default was of course not biased in any way by its white straight maleness—no way! Race was the unfortunate condition of nonwhite people that had nothing to do with white people and as such was not a natural part of the Universal of Literature, and anyone that tried to introduce racial consciousness to the Great (White) Universal of Literature would be seen as politicizing the Pure Art and betraying the (White) Universal (no race) ideal of True Literature.”

Diaz also says his MFA program was simply “too white”:

“Too white as in Cornell had almost no POC—no people of color—in it. Too white as in the MFA had no faculty of color in the fiction program—like none—and neither the faculty nor the administration saw that lack of color as a big problem…Too white as in my workshop reproduced exactly the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around race and racism (and sexism and heteronormativity, etc). In my workshop there was an almost lunatical belief that race was no longer a major social force (it’s class!). In my workshop we never explored our racial identities or how they impacted our writing—at all. Never got any kind of instruction in that area—at all. Shit, in my workshop we never talked about race except on the rare occasion someone wanted to argue that ‘race discussions’ were exactly the discussion a serious writer should not be having.”

I think it’s a good sign that we are having this discussion. Personally, I think the book industry is scared to go outside the norm because it’s so fragile at the moment. Sales are down are what not. But I actually feel like the changing industry presents an opportunity, not a problem.  It’s like, why not publish something different? Expand your audience! Take a risk and bet that people will enjoying consuming stories about a diverse world. I know I do!