Category Archives: Publishing

Cool podcast alert: Hey YA

Headphones.I’m taking a break from planning out my NaNoWriMo schedule to share a fun new podcast from Book Riot: Hey YA. Hosted by Kelly Jensen (a former librarian and current blogger at Book Riot and Stacked, she knows her YA lit) and author and literary agent (and generally awesome person) Eric Smith, Hey YA is a bi-weekly podcast that talks about all things YA lit. So far they’ve discussed common tropes, pitches that worked (and some hilarious ones that didn’t), and recommended YA reads in all genres. Kelly and Eric have an easy rapport, and their enthusiasm for YA lit shines through. If you want to know what’s happening in the world of YA, or just want some more book recommendations, I highly recommend this podcast.

Do you listen to any bookish podcasts?

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Will you be at Midwest Writers Workshop?

Midwest Writers Workshop.Today’s post is short, since I’m busy getting ready for the 44th Annual Midwest Writers Workshop. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ve probably heard me sing the praises of MWW, as it’s where I met many of my critique partners and closest friends. No matter what stage you’re at in your career, if you have the time and means to attend a writing conference, I highly recommend doing so.

And if you’re going to be at MWW, please say hi!

Please, call me out!

Bullhorn.In the last few years, calls for diversity in both writing and publishing have gained more and more attention. We still have a long way to go in terms of representation, but I find the current dialog encouraging. Something I’ve seen on the rise recently (or at least getting more widespread attention recently) is readers discussing books with representation they find problematic. A disappointing, though not surprising, result of this is backlash against the readers who call out problematic books.

There have been so many cases recently. A reader points out a harmful depiction of a character’s race, gender identity, mental illness, etc. The author responds with public claims that they’re being attacked. Friends of the author gang up on the reader and cry bully, sometimes without even seeing the original review or statement that “attacked” the author.

I applaud authors who try to write diverse characters respectfully. Those who do their research, who learn about the cultures and experiences they’re trying to represent, who work with readers who share their characters’ identities, are doing some great work. And even they get it wrong sometimes.

I am a cisgendered heterosexual white woman from a middle-class background, and not all of my characters are cis hetero white women. I do a lot of research, and I do my best to listen to members of the communities my characters belong to. And I know I won’t get everything right. First of all, there’s no universal Black/Latinx/trans/Deaf/etc. experience, so different readers from those communities may respond differently to my characters. But, as a writer, I’m writing for my readers. Especially my Black/Latinx/trans/Deaf/etc. readers.

So if I write something that hurts those readers, I want to know. I want to know as soon as possible, because I don’t ever want to do it again. And if you call me out in private, I’ll publicly share what you found harmful or problematic, so other writers can learn from my mistakes, and so readers can hear me say, “I got this wrong, I’m sorry, and I’ll do my best to do better.”

Authors, we need to be more open to criticism, especially when it comes to matters of representation. Good intentions are great, but if I step on your foot, whether I intended to do so or not, your foot still hurts. If I’m a decent human being, I won’t gather my friends and demand you stop crying and suck it up because I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’ll apologize and be more careful of where I step in the future.

Good representation can save lives. And bad representation can really, really harm our teens. Here’s just one story, but there are many, many others. Follow awesome people like L.L. McKinneyJustina Ireland, and Debbie Reese and you’ll see what I mean. Listen. Learn.

And if you’re called out, don’t attack the reader who’s trying to save other readers from getting hurt. Apologize, and do better next time.

Readers, if I step on your foot, please tell me.

Goals for 2017

Fireworks.

Photo by flickr user Maurice

Looking back on 2016, it’s hard for me to say it was a good year. The election and the months leading up to it were trying, and the aftermath has been even more trying. But a few good things did happen for me. In 2016 I:

  1. Finished revising a book and queried it.
  2. Got a job as a teen librarian.
  3. Had several thought-provoking discussions about diversity and representation in the kidlit world.
  4. Joined the We Need Diverse Books Librarian Squad.
  5. Read and recommended a lot of great books.
  6. Did my first round of school visits — and was surprised and delighted to find I love school visits.
  7. Moved closer to my workplace.
  8. Learned a lot from giving feedback to and receiving feedback from critique partners.
  9. Tightened my prose by writing flash fiction.
  10. Started writing an #ownvoices book.

I didn’t accomplish everything I would’ve liked to accomplish in 2016, but I’m happy with this list. And, because I like setting goals, here are some things I’d like to do next year:

  1. Complete and query at least one new project.
  2. Read more MG books.
  3. Read more #ownvoices books.
  4. Continue learning. Always.
  5. Increase circulation of teen books at my library.
  6. Practice self-care, paying more attention to both my physical and mental health.
  7. Write something that scares me.
  8. Keep a close eye on what’s happening in our country, and speak out against threats to democracy and freedom of the press.
  9. Learn to cook at least one new dish.
  10. Take risks.

How did 2016 go for you? Do you have any goals/resolutions for the coming year?

Reflections on reviews, reviewers, and privilege

Let’s get this out of the way. Hi, I’m Liz, and I have a lot of privilege. I’m a white, cisgendered, heterosexual woman from a middle-class family. I’ve never had to worry about where I’ll sleep tonight or where my next meal will come from. Neither I nor my siblings have ever had “the talk” with our parents — the one about how to act if we’re stopped by the police. I’ve never been targeted by TSA agents because of my looks or my faith. I can never fully understand the experiences of those who have dealt with these things.

That said, I do my best to relate to and learn from those whose experiences are different from my own. I listen. I am fascinated by others’ stories — I want to know more about those who live in different communities or have different customs that those I grew up with. I care deeply about representation — in books, movies, media, workplaces … basically everywhere. Representation matters.

When We Was Fierce.So, when I first heard about e. E. Charlton-Trujillo’s When We Was Fierce, I was excited about a book written from the perspective of an African-American teen in an African-American community. After reading starred reviews of the book in KirkusPublisher’s Weekly, and Booklist, I eagerly pre-ordered it for my library and added it to my to-read list.

It’s a reflection of my privilege that, despite everything I’ve heard about the lack of diversity in the publishing industry, despite my involvement in conversations surrounding the We Need Diverse Books movement and calls for #ownvoices representation, I didn’t consider who was writing these reviews. I trusted the word of reviewers who are not black and have never been a part of a community like the one When We Was Fierce is meant to represent, because they are professional reviewers. Because the reviews they’ve written, and the publications they’ve written for, have guided my reading and collection development well in the past.

Then my Twitter feed, which is filled with thought-provoking conversations by people like Justina IrelandEdi Campbell, and Zetta Elliot, exploded with concerns about this book. I read reviews by POC readers pointing out that Charlton-Trujillo’s “new vernacular” (in the author’s words) was broken and insulting, that the characters felt like stereotypes, that the book is an inaccurate and damaging representation of black communities. I haven’t read When We Was Fierce yet, but reading the excerpts in these reviews (which I realize were chosen as the most offensive examples), I was deeply concerned. Is this how the readers who gave this book starred reviews really see black communities? The language in those excerpts has no linguistic foundation, and presents black vernacular as broken and uneducated speech. I’m horrified by the thought of handing a book with this language to a black teen, as though saying, “this is how I see you.”

This is not how I see you.

I know my views are impacted by my own experiences and my own privilege, which is why it’s so important to have diverse reviewers evaluating diverse books. We need more #ownvoices books, but at the very least we need #ownvoices writers and readers consulted about books that are meant to reflect their experiences. If you haven’t read Zetta Elliott’s post, “Black Voices Matter,” or KT Horning’s post about “When Whiteness Dominates Reviews,” I highly recommend doing so. We need diverse books, yes, but we also need diverse critics who can speak to the authenticity of these books.

Tips for talking with agents in the wild

Chipmunk coming out of a hole.

Photo by Flickr user Tamia rayé

Since I’m headed to Midwest Writers Workshop in a couple days, I thought I’d dedicate this week’s post to conference etiquette. I’ve written about the value of conferences in the past (I met nearly all of my critique partners either at MWW or through people I met at MWW), but today I’m going to focus on interacting with agents and editors in the wild.

For some of us, agents can feel like the celebrities of the literary world. If you want to publish traditionally, these are the people you need to champion your book. You’ve done all your homework: you’ve written and polished an awesome book, written and polished a perfect pitch, researched the agents attending the conference so you know whom to pitch. You’ve practiced that pitch in front of mirrors and friends and your cat/dog/ferret until Sparky could recite it back to you. You’ve got sample pages and a query and synopsis ready for anyone — fellow writers, agents, editors, your waiter at dinner — who asks. You are Ready.

Being Ready is good. Being Ready shows you’re a professional. But sometimes Ready can cross over into pushy or overbearing. When interacting with agents and editors I like to keep the following in mind.

1. If an agent or editor asks what your book is about, feel free to tell them. But don’t make every conversation about yourself or your book. Agents are working during the conference, and some of them may see the downtime of meals or breaks between sessions as just that — breaks. If you’re forcing them to listen to a pitch, you’re making them work during their break. And please, please, please, don’t try to pitch to someone in the bathroom, or slide a manuscript under their hotel door. (Yes, I’ve seen this happen. No, the agent was not impressed.)

2. Agents love books as much as writers do. If you find yourself in a mingling situation with no idea what to say (as I often do), ask them what they’re reading. What are their favorite books they’ve read this year? You may find yourself in a heated Ravenclaw vs. Slytherin debate with a new friend. Conversations like these will also give you an idea of what the agent’s tastes are, should you decide to query them after the conference.

3. If you’re getting your work critiqued, come ready to listen. Critiques sting, and I know it can be tempting to defend your work when an element of it doesn’t resonate with a reader. Resist the urge. Listen, and take notes. When the critique is over, thank the agent/editor/other writers for their feedback. You don’t have to agree with all — or even any — of their comments. (Though if you hear the same thing from several people, you should probably re-examine that part of the piece.) You also don’t have to go home and edit right away. Take the time you need to absorb, decompose, and detach. Remember, a critique of your work is not a critique of you as a person or your skill as a writer. It’s a critique of this piece, and only this piece.

4. If an agent listens to your pitch and says your book isn’t for them, ask them if they would mind giving you feedback on your pitch/query. (If there’s time. Depending on the conference, you may or may not have time for some feedback or conversation built into your pitch session.) Again, resist the urge to defend your work during the critique. Be polite, and thank the agent for their time.

5. Remember, agents are people, too! It may seem scary at first to approach an agent or editor, but that agent or editor may be just as intimidated by all the authors in the room. If anyone — writer, agent, editor, volunteer — looks lost/overwhelmed, introduce yourself and ask how their conference is going. It would be great to meet your agent at a conference, but it’s equally great to meet a new friend at one.

Have I missed anything you’d add to this? Will any of you be at Midwest Writers Workshop? If so, I’ll see you there!

Who are we writing YA for?

Last week, an article in The Guardian, “Most YA Fiction is Grown-Up Fiction in Disguise,” argued that YA writers are missing their target audience. Now, publishing in the UK looks very different from publishing in the US, but the article got me thinking. What makes a YA book YA, and are teens still connecting with new YA books? Who are we writing YA for?

First, what makes a book YA? The simplest answer is the age of the main characters — typically fourteen to eighteen is considered YA, though there’s some flexibility there. But making a character sixteen doesn’t automatically make a book YA. The characters have to sound like teens, and they have to be dealing with problems teens face. If a book is high fantasy, the characters’ struggles can still mirror those of contemporary teens — figuring out who they are, navigating changing friendships, assuming more responsibilities, dealing with parental/family/community expectations, first loves and first heartbreaks … I could keep going, but I think you get the idea. For a YA book to resonate with teen readers, the characters must be authentic teens — they must worry about things teens worry about, and they must talk and act like teens. Voice is huge in kid lit. Whether you’re writing a chapter book, middle grade, or YA, your characters have to sound like kids their age. (If you want an excellent example of this, check out All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. While I’m sure many adults will enjoy this book, it’s hard to argue, as the Guardian article suggests, that this is adult fiction in disguise.)

So, are teens still connecting with new YA books? The teens in my community are. And teens are lining up to meet YA authors at book festivals all across the country — at the Texas Teen Book Festival, at YALLFest, at Book Con, and at hundreds of other smaller gatherings at libraries and bookstores. I’ve heard teens in heated debates about their favorite characters and series. And if you look at all the fan art and fan fiction created by teens about teen books, I think you’ll find teen interest in YA is alive and well.

Still, the question remains, who are we writing YA for? Most YA writers I know say they write for teens. Diverse authors often say they write the books they wish they’d had as teens. And I’m thrilled to have those books now to share with the teens in my community.

As a YA writer, I’ll be thrilled if adults connect with my books. I hope some adults will. But I don’t write my books for those readers. I write them for the teens who may see themselves in my characters, who may be facing the same challenges as those characters, who may read my books and realize that they’re not alone. Because that’s what I wanted from YA books as a teen.

If you’re a writer, who do you write for? Do you feel YA has become more adult lately?