Friday, July 21, 2017

A Tale of Two Mentors


I’ve been writing South Asian characters for…ten years now? Wow.

The first MS was a romantic comedy that I’ve since decided needs to be drawered forever. The second was YA cyberpunk, and it landed me with my former agent. Unfortunately, after three long years on submission, some close calls, and an editor R&R, it ultimately never sold. I think it was a strong effort, but I still had a lot to learn.

As I drafted my latest manuscript, I realized what I wanted more than anything was a mentor: a published author who could look at my work and help take my craft to the next level.

Opportunities

Last October, two opportunities came up. First, We Need Diverse Books offered its annual mentorship program, increasing the number of mentors from the year before. The application involved shaping up my first ten pages, writing two essays, a synopsis, and a short pitch.

At the same time, author Gwenda Bond (Lois Lane: Fallout) announced on social media that she was pairing up WOC authors with mentors. Since the WNDB slots were limited, I went ahead and emailed her asking if she could fit me in.

I feel so incredibly lucky because I ended up getting connected to two brilliant and generous women: Padma Venkatraman (author of Climbing the Stairs and A Time to Dance) and Jennifer Latham (author of Scarlett Undercover and Dreamland Burning).

First Impressions

In November, Jennifer and I talked on Skype to get to know each other. Having been through a number of publishing hurdles herself, Jennifer was very empathetic to my struggles. It was so nice to hear from someone who had been through some of the same things I had, and I was thrilled when she offered to read my manuscript.

In December, I learned that I had been selected as one of the recipients of the WNDB mentorship program, a huge honor. Because Padma and I had both been travelling, we didn’t get a chance to talk on the phone until February. She was very sweet, and told me that my pages stood out among the fierce competition. Her enthusiasm has helped bolster my confidence as I revise.

Feedback

Jennifer and Padma both offered many kind words about the characters and plot, which of course was very encouraging. In terms of critique, it was interesting because they focused on different aspects, the macro versus the micro. Both are valuable, and I feel so lucky to have had the chance to work with such smart women.

While Jennifer provided some line notes, she focused primarily on developmental edits. Her thoughts immediately resonated with me. Among other things, here is some of the advice she gave me:

1. Make the main character proactive from the start. She should be driving events, not being led along by them.
2. Bring in the romantic interest early.
3. Give the main character clear goals and show her incremental progress throughout.
4. Tighten the ending as much as possible.
5. Find ways to ground the story with more about the world.

The above might seem kind of obvious, but often when you’re in the midst of revisions you’re not seeing the forest for the trees. In fact, Jennifer has a real knack for finding the weak spots in a manuscript and suggesting ways to fix them. Right away, I had some great ideas on how to implement some of the changes. Other issues, however, needed more time to gestate.

Padma offered a few overarching pointers, but she mostly zeroed in on the prose itself, marking up my manuscript with extensive line edits. I really appreciate the time it took her to go through the text with such thoroughness. Some of the things she pointed out:

1. Even when you’re trying to convey a lot of information, you need to keep the appropriate emotion on the page.
2. Make certain the characters’ decisions logically follow from their thought processes.
3. Remove stiff language and anything extraneous from dialogue to make it snap.
4. Be cognizant of your own writing tics and work to improve them. (I have a definite problem of overusing sentence fragments.)
5. Even when your character is frustrated, your reader shouldn’t be.

Her insightful comments helped me clean up my prose and shape it into something a lot stronger. Now I know what to look for with an eagle eye.

Takeaways

First, it’s important to remember to be patient, both while you wait for feedback and also with yourself as you make changes. As tempting as it is to give yourself a deadline, rushing your edits is not in your best interest.

Second, sometimes you’ll disagree with some of the feedback. That’s okay. It was great to have two mentors because I had two opinions to seek. You can always get more beta readers too, if you’re unsure which way to go with something.

Finally, it’s up to you to make the most of the feedback you receive. You have to push yourself, to not be afraid of drastic changes when they’re called for. And of course you have to be a creative problem solver. A glaring issue may be apparent, but the best way to fix it may be hard to put your finger on. Don’t settle.

A mentorship is a great way to improve your craft. Just remember to take the lessons you’ve learned to future manuscripts as well.

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Many thanks to both Padma Venkatraman and Jennifer Latham, two wise and generous souls! Also, thank you We Need Diverse Books and Gwenda Bond for making this year possible for me. I hope that some day soon I’ll be able to pay it forward to another aspiring writer.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Writing for Change: Pamela Courtney Speaks

In the Writing for Change series, I've asked writers to share how the political climate has shaped their work. Today, I have Pamela Courtney, a teacher and a 2017 recipient of the We Need Diverse Books mentoring program. Take it away, Pamela!

Maya, thank you so much for allowing me to share my thoughts with you and your readers.

What do the following have in common? Freedom in Congo Square, Last Stop on Market Street, Tar Beach, The Sound that Jazz Makes, The Snowy Day.

Need a hint? In the 1990 publication of Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop writes, “Books are sometimes windows. When…conditions are just right, a window can also be a mirror.”

Each morning, I’m greeted by gleaming, eager faces in every hue of brown. Introducing them to well written literature, whose images mirror those of my early learners, is paramount. And so, these books adorn every flat surface in my classroom. My duty is great. I am a writer who teaches. I am a teacher who writes.

“Books can also be a mirror." More specifically, words mirror attitudes and feelings. Words, allowed and encouraged by the hostile political climate we’ve maintained, actively work to devalue, to lessen, to take away. I am acutely aware how the lack of words is used to alter, and in many cases eliminate actual events.

Slavery…the ugliest, most shameful, most influential institution of our country is not mentioned in some curricula. Therefore, how a people endeavored to forge indelible, remarkable paths impacting our world is devalued. The strength of a people to endure is altered. Eliminated. Children are listening. Children are learning. Children are responding to what and how information is offered. Mirrors and Windows.

In our deeds, through our words, from the environment that we create, children are taught to accept or dismiss people unlike Us. We must ensure that children are carefully taught to develop awareness for other peoples: their culture, their traditions, and their beliefs. I share in my writing little known historical events that have shaped traditions, familial roles, and world views. Events inextricably woven, unnoticed into the rich tapestry of our lives. Each strand a distinguished, necessary raised bit of thread. Every child deserves quality literature that illustrates cultural authenticity.

So, what do those books have in common? It’s not quite the answer you think. Each book holds a special place in the heart of my classroom. My students experience the obstinate courage of a people, the familiarity of intergenerational relationships, how social injustices impact family structures, the sorrows felt and gifts created by a marginalized people, the first commercially successful book featuring a child of color who is simply experiencing snow.

These are the books my students reach for again and again. These books and books like them guide my writing. They are more than mentor texts. They are mirrors. They are windows. The profound responsibility I own as a teacher, as a writer, has never been more deeply felt.

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Pamela Courtney lives in Atlanta, GA, but the Red River of Louisiana permanently flows through her veins. She is a former Curriculum Consultant, but is now proud to claim herself "Teacher of some of the most intellectually stimulating Kindergarteners and 1st Graders." Pamela is a 2017 recipient of the We Need Diverse Books mentoring program; mentored by Carole Boston Weatherford.

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Thanks so much, Pamela! For more in the Writing for Change series, check out posts from Kelly Loy Gilbert, Tanaz Bhathena, Rachel Lynn Solomon and Samira Ahmed.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Writing for Change: Samira Ahmed Speaks

With the intensity of the 2016 election, I've found myself drawn to those like myself for whom current events can not be extricated with their work. 

On that note, I have Samira Ahmed, author of Love, Hate, and Other Filters (Soho Press, 1/16/18), here to share the ways in which the political climate has shaped her writing. Take it away, Samira!

Lean In…To Hope

Say their names.

Nabra Hassanen
Maulana Akonjee
Thara Uddin
Azzedine Soufiane
Ibrahima Barry
Nazma Khanam
Khaled Belckacemi
Aboubaker Thabti
Mamadou Tanou
Abdelkrim Hassane
Srinivas Kuchibhotla
Ricky John Best
Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche

This list represents only some of the individuals who have lost their lives in Islamophobic attacks in the United States and Canada in the last year or so. Not all of these people are Muslim, but, nevertheless, were victims of Islamophobic bigotry.

And this is only a partial list and doesn’t include assaults, vandalism, Quran burnings, anti-Islamic protests, and the ongoing threats and hate speech directed at Muslims or those who “appear Muslim.”

Islamophobia isn’t new to the United States—indeed it comes anyone living during the Iran Hostage Crisis or in the aftermath of 9/11 knows that. But since the 2016 Presidential campaign, anti-Islamic sentiment is on the rise.

My debut novel, Love, Hate, and Other Filters, confronts Islamophobia on the page. Some of my inspiration, if you can call it that, for incidences in the novel, stems from my own experiences growing up as the only Muslim in my small Midwestern town and from what I witnessed after the 9/11 attacks while living in New York City. In 2010, when I first had the idea for this book, a New York City cab driver was stabbed after a passenger asked if he was Muslim.

When faced with this rising tide of ignorance and hate, when you are made to feel like you are the “other” in your own nation, in your only home, there are a few choices before you—and sometimes you have to make the same choice every day. What can I do with my anger and fear and sorrow and disbelief?

I chose to use all of these feelings and filter them into my writing, but I chose to filter these feelings through hope. For me, leaning into hope was how I could write my resistance; how I could stand and not cower; how I could declare, as Langston Hughes wrote, that, “I, too, am America.”

I hope that my book can be a mirror for so many kids, Muslim or not, who might feel like they’re on the periphery. I hope it can show them that they are loved and that they are enough.

I also hope my book can be a window for so many kids who may have never met a Muslim, but have only heard the fear mongering from politicians and talking heads and hate groups. I hope those kids can see what it means to be a Muslim in America, firstly that it simply means that they are American.

But I also wrote this book for me. Putting this book into the world is a way for me to send a little light into the darkness, to hold onto hope and to remember.

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Samira Ahmed was born in Bombay, India, and grew up in Batavia, Illinois, in a house that smelled like fried onions, spices, and potpourri. She currently resides in the Midwest. She’s lived in Vermont, New York City, and Kauai, where she spent a year searching for the perfect mango. You can find her on Twitter @sam_aye_ahm and on her wesbite at www.samiraahmed.com.

Her debut novel, Love, Hate, and Other Filters, is available for pre-order now.

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Thanks so much, Samira! For more in the Writing for Change series, check out posts from Kelly Loy Gilbert, Tanaz Bhathena, Rachel Lynn Solomon and Pamela Courtney.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Writing for Change: Rachel Lynn Solomon Speaks

2017 remains a year with a particularly charged political atmosphere, and I've found myself drawn to those like myself for whom current events can not be extricated with their work.

Today I've invited Rachel Lynn Solomon, author of You'll Miss Me When I'm Gone (Simon Pulse, 1/2/18), to share with us the ways in which the political climate has shaped her writing. Take it away, Rachel!


I never thought I'd see a swastika outside a World War II movie. In fact, I avoid books and films about WWII partially for this reason. When I was young, my parents filled my bookshelves with Holocaust literature. I never grew desensitized -- I don't think that's possible -- but I did grow weary. It was too much. Too much hate for a child to try to process. Too many questions without answers.

In the days and weeks after the election, I saw them. Swastikas. Not in my neighborhood, but in news stories, scrawled across brick walls and painted on synagogue doors. It seemed the election had given racists, bigots, misogynists, and anti-Semites permission to go public with their hate.

My first revisions for YOU'LL MISS ME WHEN I'M GONE were due a few weeks after the election. On November 9, I couldn't get out of bed. I'd cried myself to sleep the night before. Finally, finally, I forced myself to brush my teeth, let my dog drag me onto a walk, wept with a friend into coffee mugs. I signed up for monthly donations to the ADL, CAIR, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, numerous others. I started calling my representative and senators.

Then I opened my book, and I turned my rage into words.

YOU'LL MISS ME WHEN I'M GONE is my fifth completed novel. Strangely, it's also my first book with Jewish characters. I figured I never read books about Jews that weren't about the Holocaust, that those kinds of books didn't really exist. It seemed as though there was no way to write about our rich traditions, beautiful languages, and cultural history without it being wrapped up in tragedy. Characters in YA novels celebrated Christmas. I did not. That's just how it was -- despite how Other it always made me feel.

When I began drafting YOU'LL MISS ME WHEN I'M GONE about four years ago, I wanted it to feel more personal than any of my other books. My characters, I decided, had to be practicing Jews. Through the revision process, YMMWIG grew into even more of a challenge to the current administration. The book is unapologetically feminist, sex-positive, liberal, and Jewish. My characters pray, observe Shabbat, and speak Hebrew with their Israeli mother.

Eight months after the election, I am still in mourning for our country. I am still fighting back in small, perhaps not always visible ways. And while I still struggle with Holocaust literature, what I've learned in recent years is that tragedy is not our only story as Jewish people. I want more stories about Jews in the modern world, about JDS and JCC and B'nai B'rith and Birthright. About the holidays we observe. About the feeling you get when you meet another Jewish person and you feel in your bones that you understand each other on some deep level. Klal yisrael, a phrase I include in my debut: we are all connected.

And there is the story about my relationship with Judaism, too -- one I am still figuring out how to tell. One day, I'll get there.

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Rachel Lynn Solomon is the author of the contemporary YA novel You'll Miss Me When I'm Gone (Simon Pulse, 1/2/18), available for preorder now. A former journalist, Rachel currently works in education and loves tap dancing, red lipstick, and new wave music. You can find her on Twitter @rlynn_solomon and online at rachelsolomonbooks.com.

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Thanks so much, Rachel! For more in the Writing for Change series, check out posts from Kelly Loy Gilbert, Tanaz Bhathena, Samira Ahmed, and Pamela Courtney.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Writing for Change: Tanaz Bhathena Speaks

In 2017, news headlines are hard to ignore. I can't remember a time in my life where politics have been so center stage in my mind. As writers, we have our own unique role to play as we struggle to reflect truth in our prose.

Today, I have Tanaz Bhathena, author of A Girl Like That (releases 2018), here to tell us how the political climate has shaped her work. Take it away, Tanaz!

Finding Hope in Darkness

I abhorred reading about politics as a teen. Yet, oddly enough, I've always liked books that have had a political backdrop. In school, I was the kid most likely to check out Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey along with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter from the library and enjoy both for how they reflected our world in different settings.

While reading the news often filled me with despair, fiction lifted my heart, giving me glimpses into human beings and their failings and also their innate capacity for goodness. I eventually began to follow politics more closely to see how it impacted people and their lives.

When I first started writing my book in 2006, I did a great deal of research--not only about the politics but also the history of Saudi Arabia. A part of me still wholeheartedly believes in people and their capacity for goodness--so much that I wondered if some of the themes I would be exploring would still be relevant when this book finally got published. Here's the thing though: People are slow to change, even when it is for the better.

In 2017, debates still break out worldwide over regulating women's bodies and consent. Wars are fought over race and religion. Domestic and sexual abuse are still problems and so are bullying and mental health.

I initially wrote A Girl Like That with an adult audience in mind. There was swearing (a whole lot of it that has now been cut). There were adult perspectives alongside the teenage ones. In the end, though, no adult publisher wanted it. It was too dark, they said. "Do the two main characters have to be dead at the beginning? Can you change that?" they asked me.

When I finally did sign a contract with a young adult publisher, these voices still echoed in my head. Will teens want to read this book? I wondered. Will they find it too dark or too issue-heavy?

But then I remembered the teen who hated the darkness of our world and found hope in even darker novels.

As Madeline L'Engle once said, "You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children."

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Tanaz Bhathena was born in Mumbai and raised in Riyadh, Jeddah and Toronto. Her short stories have appeared in various journals, including Blackbird, Witness and Room Magazine. A Girl Like That is her first novel, available for preorder now. You can learn more at tanazbhathena.com.


Thanks so much, Tanaz. For more in the Writing for Change series, check out posts from Kelly Loy Gilbert, Rachel Lynn Solomon, Samira Ahmed, and Pamela Courtney.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Writing for Change: Kelly Loy Gilbert Speaks

With the intensity of the 2016 election, something amazing arose: millions of people are now engaging in politics in ways they never had before. Town halls are packed, phone lines are jammed. And we writers have a unique role to play. 

On that note, Kelly Loy Gilbert, author of Conviction, is here to discuss how the political climate has shaped her work. Take it away, Kelly!

I've been working on my current novel (forthcoming from Disney-Hyperion), which is about Asian Americans and immigration, long enough to have happily changed plotlines after the DREAM Act went into effect--and then been at a complete loss after the election this past November. As a writer of contemporary fiction, everything felt different: was I suddenly writing a dystopian novel?

I have always believed in the importance of the story as a means of demanding empathy, and I feel that now more than ever. I'm always conscious that I write for young people, many of whom are politically voiceless and yet still affected by this administration's policies, disregard for all norms and decency, and extreme endangering of POC/queer/disabled people, among others.

Sometimes stories feel useless, or at least like such small weapons against everything happening, and I think it's easy to get discouraged. But I think of the young people who don't fit the mold of what the administration believes a person should be and do and who have that message reinforced daily. I think of the people whose bodies and families are under threat. I think of the ugliness that's been given a national platform. And I hope, if nothing else, those young people will know that the literary community is behind them, that we see them and won't look away from what's happening.

I don't believe we can separate politics from anything we do, and I feel that acutely in my stories. Writing is a calling. May we ever answer it.

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Kelly Loy Gilbert is the author of Conviction, a 2016 Morris Award Finalist and Children's Choice Book Award Winner. She lives in the SF Bay Area. You can follow her on twitter at @KellyLoyGilbert and on tumblr.


Thanks so much, Kelly. For more in the Writing for Change series, check out the posts with Tanaz Bhathena, Rachel Lynn Solomon, Samira Ahmed, and Pamela Courtney.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Writing My Resistance: New Blog Design & Logo

I know so many writers who have had trouble getting words on the page since the election.  Honestly, when it seems as if the world is imploding around us, our own dreams and passions can feel like an indulgence. But that's simply not true.
 
Books create empathy. 
Books open doors to new worlds and new ideas.  
Books are powerful. 

It's clearer than ever that our world needs that. So we must write. And our responsibilities as writers of young adult fiction have grown with the rise of hatred and xenophobia around us. If we can instill a greater understanding of the world at large, we can create better leaders tomorrow.

As a writer with no book deal in hand (yet!), I wasn't keen on expending a lot of resources on a fancy design. But I decided that a new logo with a strong message could be a powerful reminder to myself about why I do what I do.  I wanted it to reflect my commitment to writing as a means of making positive change.

So I called up Vin, founder of Fabler & Design (and my sister). I said, "Hey, do you think you can make me a logo that is beautiful and elegantly captures the theme 'Writing my Resistance'? Oh, and on top of that, can you bring in elements of my Indian identity?"

I was inspired in part by the Shepard Fairey resistance posters that have been everywhere. I love how he has so easily captured patriotism and diversity together. But what he makes look effortless is no easy feat, so I knew that Vin had her work cut out for her.

Her first idea was beautiful, incorporating the Hindu Goddess Saraswati as a muse. Yet I had trouble easily translating it into the theme. We tried adding more elements to make the messaging clearer, but the added complexity was only making it more muddled. We decided to take a step back and try a simpler approach.

The header above is what Vin came up with on the second try. It captures everything I wanted to convey, with elegance and simplicity. I love how fierce the girl looks and how words flow seamlessly out of her head. (I wish my novels came out so easily.) We chose quotes by writers and leaders that honed in on the themes of books as weapons, writing as a means of identity, and the importance of taking a stand.

Take a closer look. I hope it inspires other readers, writers, and dreamers out there. I know it will keep me pushing along on this journey!

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If you like the design and you want to make a change to your own site, please contact Vin at Fabler & Design. Her current pricing for a new custom art logo is only $295, and as you can see, it can transform even a simple blogger account.