New Book Release! #scandal Has Arrived!

June 17, 2014

Good morning, my loyal readers and long lost friends! I know, I know. It’s not you, it’s totally me. I’ve been hiding out in the writing cave forever. But all that hard work is paying off, because guess what happens today? My latest YA release, #scandal, hits the shelves!

#scandal by Sarah Ockler

 

This book is a bit different from my previous novels, which is one reason I had so much fun hiding out and writing it—I loved changing up my style! It’s much more satirical and snarky, with a large and quirky cast of characters, including a horse named Prince Freckles, who, let’s face it, is pretty damn loveable. The narrator, Lucy Vacarro, deals with her situation with a dark sense of humor (she reminds me of someone… who is it… oh yeah… teen me!). It’s also chock full of fun pop-culture references to fan favorites like Veronica Mars, Buffy, and The Walking Dead. Despite the different approach, readers who’ve enjoyed my other stories will still find familiar Ockler dynamics in #scandal. The story features teens dealing with challenges like best friend breakups, epic screw-ups, family secrets, school drama, and of course—falling in love. :-) All the things I love writing about! I hope you’ll give it a chance, and I hope you’ll have as much fun reading it as I had writing it.

About #scandal

 
Lucy’s learned some important lessons from tabloid darling Jayla Heart’s all-too-public blunders: Avoid the spotlight, don’t feed the Internet trolls, and keep your secrets secret. The policy has served Lucy well all through high school, so when her best friend Ellie gets sick before prom and begs her to step in as Cole’s date, she accepts with a smile, silencing about ten different reservations. Like the one where she’d rather stay home shredding online zombies. And the one where she hates playing dress-up. And especially the one where she’s been secretly in love with Cole since the dawn of time.

When Cole surprises her at the after party with a kiss under the stars, it’s everything Lucy has ever dreamed of… and the biggest BFF deal-breaker ever. Despite Cole’s lingering sweetness, Lucy knows they’ll have to ’fess up to Ellie. But before they get the chance, Lucy’s own Facebook profile mysteriously explodes with compromising pics of her and Cole, along with tons of other students’ party indiscretions. Tagged. Liked. And furiously viral.

By Monday morning, Lucy’s been branded a slut, a backstabber, and a narc, mired in a tabloid-worthy scandal just weeks before graduation.

Lucy’s been battling undead masses online long enough to know there’s only one way to survive a disaster of this magnitude: Stand up and fight. Game plan? Uncover and expose the Facebook hacker, win back her best friend’s trust, and graduate with a clean slate.

There’s just one snag—Cole. Turns out Lucy’s not the only one who’s been harboring unrequited love…

Sound Fun? Get A Copy!

 
You can find #scandal in your favorite bookstore, or order online here:

#scandal at Indiebound#scandal at Amazon#scandal at B&N#scandal at iBooks#scandal on Kobo
 
 
 
 
 

California Fans: I’m Coming Your Way!

 
If you live in or around Los Angeles or San Francisco, I’d love to meet you during the Summer Lovin’ Tour! From June 22-27, I’ll be visiting bookstores and libraries with fellow YA authors C.J. Flood, Jody Casella, and Suzanne Young. Come see us and get the inside scoop!

Summer Lovin 2014


Dispelling Traditional Publication Myths: Advice for Aspiring Authors

November 7, 2013

Good morning, writers of tall tales, rattlers of cages, sowers of chaos!

It’s been ages since I’ve seen you and/or the sun, but recent conversations with aspiring authors have lured me out of the Cave of Perpetual Caviness to dispel some common myths and set right some bad advice I’ve encountered for YA authors seeking traditional publication.

Don’t let the fact that I’ve been wearing the same uniform (bird pants, Rochester Teen Book Fair 2010 shirt, fleece pullover, none of it remotely matching) since basically last month detract from my otherwise totally professional professionalism. Just be grateful this is a blog post and not a video, and then we are moving on to the myths!

But first, a friendly neighborhood disclaimer: There are many paths to publication, and what works for one author may not work for another, or may not work in exactly the same way. The following is based on my personal experience as a traditionally published author of young adult novels and my correspondence with other traditionally published YA authors, editors, agents, booksellers, librarians, bloggers, and related bookworms. It’s not intended to address self-publishing, small press publishing, write-for-hire work, book packaging, nonfiction, or other non-YA categories or shorter forms of fiction (though some of the information may still apply). Also, it totally may cause drowsiness, and it’s not recommended for writers without immediate access to wine and/or chocolate and/or elastic-waist pajamas, which are basically universal requirements for YA authors, and that is not a myth.

Still with me? Okay, then. In the words of Aragorn as played by Viggo Mortensen in The Fellowship of the Ring, movie edition, “Let’s hunt some orc.” By which I obviously mean, “Let’s bust some myths,” but what self-respecting YA author can pass up an opportunity to recall Aragorn in his orc-hunting finery? “Leave all that can be spared behind.” Onward!

MYTH #1: Always have a few different books in the works, because you never know what a publisher may be looking for.

Depending on how your muse works, and how much track-hopping your brain can handle, it’s not necessarily a bad idea to have multiple projects in the pipeline, but…

Most traditional publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. Until you’re published and have a working relationship with an editor(s), you don’t generally have an opportunity to interact with or pitch editors directly (unless you do so at a conference where pitching is part of the deal, but even then, you’d be pitching one book).

Your book gets into an editor’s hands through your literary agent. To secure an agent, you must first query that agent, and you do so with one complete manuscript — a manuscript that’s been spit-shined until it gleams. So, if that one book is to land you an agent that will eventually land you a book deal, and eventually open up the door to future book deals, it makes sense to devote your creative energy and time into making that one book truly amazing before worrying about the other books.

Further, most editors and agents will tell authors not to write what you think they’re looking for, but to write the book that you’re looking for. Your passion for the story will shine through in a way it never could if you were writing simply to match an editor’s presumed wishlist — something that may change by the time your book is ready for submission, anyway.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t have multiple ideas in progress, because if you don’t land an agent with one book, you can start the query process again with the next complete book. Also, sometimes an agent will love your writing style but the book you’re querying isn’t a good match for whatever reason (maybe she already has something similar on her client list), and that agent might ask if you’re working on anything else, in which case you can let her know about your other projects. But until (and unless) that happens, your priority should be to finish that first book — the one you love and believe in the most. Pour your heart and soul into making it shine, and then query agents for that book. Once you’ve secured an agent, you can let him know about your other projects, and together you can decide which project should take priority next.

MYTH #2: In a query letter, it’s best to tell a prospective agent about all of the projects you’re working on. That way he can pick which project sounds the most interesting.

An agent doesn’t want to play bobbing-for-manuscripts from a list of random titles and topics. She wants to hear about the best, most awesome book you’ve written, and she wants to fall in love with it from your clever, confident, intriguing pitch. After you’ve secured agent representation, you can tell her about the other projects you’re working on.

MYTH #3: Once you land an agent and sell your first book, selling subsequent books is easy.

While it’s true that certain obstacles are removed once you’ve gotten your foot in the door with an agent and editor, past success is no guarantee of future success. You won’t have to search for a new agent again (provided you and your current agent are happy together), and the editor who published your last book will likely consider your next one for publication, but she’s under no obligation to do so. While being published may grant you the privilege of having an editor eagerly awaiting your next book, that book will be evaluated on its own merit. Further, if sales of your last book didn’t meet expectations, you may have more trouble selling the next one, or you may be forced to sell it for less money than you anticipated, because in the eyes of the publisher, you’re more of a financial risk. And editors change houses all the time — the editor who bought and adored your first book may be leaving for greener pastures, and her replacement may not have the same tastes (the bright side in this scenario is that if your current publisher passes on buying your next book, your agent may be able to submit it to your former editor at her new publisher for consideration).

Another challenge to selling subsequent books that authors must consider is whether to sell on complete manuscript or to sell on proposal. Selling on proposal means that your agent sends the publisher a proposal — generally, a synopsis (an outline or summary of the book which can range anywhere from 2-50 pages), along with the first 30-100 pages of the actual manuscript, depending on how much the publisher wants to see — instead of a finished novel. Selling a complete manuscript means it may take longer — you may not be ready to submit it until long after your last book hits the shelves. Selling on proposal presents its own challenges — some authors don’t like to plot books in advance, and sometimes the finished product is different than the initial outline implied, which can cause conflict on both sides if an editor isn’t happy with the outcome. Also, it may be difficult to properly estimate how long it will take you to complete a proposed manuscript, creating stress if a deadline creeps up too quickly.

So, once you sell your first book, you do have certain advantages over a yet-to-be-published author, but it’s not necessarily easier. No matter how many times you’ve been published, and no matter what your level of success on previous books, writing and selling that next book is hard work, period.

MYTH #4: In the traditional publishing industry, it’s unethical for any editor or publishing professional to charge money for critiques, proofreading, coaching, or other editorial services. Aspiring authors should never pay for such services.

Ahh, tricksy Hobbitses! This is one of those myths masquerading as legitimate advice.

It is, in fact, unethical for a literary agent to charge prospective authors money for the privilege of reading their work, or for an agent to require an author to use a paid editorial consultant or book doctor prior to considering that author’s manuscript. Agents make money on the sale of an author’s work and future royalties — agents receive a standard 15% commission (slightly higher for foreign and subrights sales) from an author’s earnings on the books he’s sold.

It is, in fact, also unethical for an editor at a traditional publishing house where he is a paid employee to charge money for the promise of publishing an author’s work (remember, in the traditional publishing model, the publisher pays the author — not the other way around). An author isn’t charged for in-house marketing services, cover design, editorial services, book distribution services, catalog listings, or other standard services that go along with publishing and marketing a book.

However — here’s where the myth part comes in — there are perfectly legitimate, fee-based service providers available to authors to help with everything from learning an aspect of the craft to goal-setting and motivational coaching, developmental editing (critique of big picture elements like plot, character development, pacing, etc.), proofing/copyediting, and more. Often an author will hire this type of service provider to help polish up the manuscript before starting the agent query process. These individuals may be published authors who offer editorial consulting services, college or community writing instructors, people who work or have worked in the publishing industry, freelance writers and editors, and other trusted individuals with the knowledge and experience to help authors write better, stronger fiction. They may be called independent editors, manuscript consultants, writing coaches, editorial consultants, writing mentors, and just about anything else you can imagine.

There is nothing unethical about charging fees for services rendered. Just watch out for anyone promising agent representation or traditional publication in exchange for a fee, or anyone “referring” you to fee-based services as a precondition of representing or publishing your work.

The best way to protect yourself from unethical individuals and publishing-related scams is to do your research. Always ask for references from anyone you’re considering doing business with, and be wary of anyone who refuses to provide references or who makes you feel uncomfortable for asking questions. Always get service and payment terms in writing before agreeing to said terms to ensure that both parties are clear on expectations. If you know people who’ve happily used such services in the past, ask for recommendations. Don’t let your dream of getting published blind you to anyone who may be trying to take advantage.

MYTH #5: Once you’ve gotten the stamp of approval from your mom and your best friend and that nice lady from the community potluck, you’re ready to start querying agents with your manuscript.

Do not — I repeat, do not — query a book that’s only been reviewed by your friends and family (even if those friends are part of your target audience, like teen readers). Before querying your work, it’s important to get objective feedback through a trusted critique partner or group (particularly from writers who are either already published, who work / have worked in the industry, or who are more experienced and better writers than you), and possibly even through a paid service like the ones discussed above, if that’s a possibility for you. You can find critique groups through local writing schools or meetups in your area, through group events like NaNoWriMo meetups, through professional associations like SCBWI and RWA, and through hundreds of online groups and classes.

If you’re in the market for a critique group, you may want to check out these oldies from the archives:

Evaluating Critique Groups: 6 Crucial Questions
Are You An Ideal Critique Partner?

MYTH #6: Finding an agent can take months or even years, so it’s a good idea to get a head start and query agents before finishing your manuscript. By the time you get a response, your manuscript will be complete.

Unless you’re doing so as part of a conference where pitching agents is part of the deal, do not cold-query agents until the book is 100% complete, polished, and submission-ready. Lots of writers make the mistake of querying too soon, only to get a quicker-than-anticipated response from an interested agent requesting the manuscript. It’s pretty embarrassing for a writer to respond to a manuscript request with, “Well, uh, it’s not actually done. I didn’t think I’d get interest so quickly.” It’s even worse to rush through the completion of a manuscript just because you queried too soon and don’t want to leave the agent hanging.

This doesn’t mean you can’t do some advanced preparation before your manuscript is complete. While most of your energy should be devoted to getting your book submission-ready, you can (and should) start researching potential agents for your query wishlist. You might also start following agent blogs and Twitter feeds or participating in online discussions with other writers and industry professionals to learn as much as possible about the business.

Here’s some additional advice and info about the agent search, when you’re ready:

How to Query Lit Agents: 6 Overlooked Steps
Literary Agent Offers: Don’t Settle

But remember, keep your primary focus on writing and finishing that book!

MYTH #7: If you share your work with an agent, editor, or writing coach prior to publication or copyright, that person will steal your idea and give it to one of her existing author clients to write.

This sounds suspiciously like the whole razors-in-the-Halloween-candy urban legend thing. I mean, anything is possible, but how long do you think those agents or editors would stay in business if they made a habit of burning new writers just to help their current authors?

It’s natural to be cautious about sending your work out into the world, but it’s a necessary part of the path to traditional publication. Agents won’t offer representation on something they haven’t read, nor will editors offer to publish it. If you’re truly worried about someone stealing your work, the best way to ensure peace of mind is to do your research. As with hiring editorial service providers, it’s important to know who you’re doing business (or critique partnerships) with. For editors and agents, Google names, ask for references, check them out. For critique partners, begin slowly by sharing smaller pieces of work until you’ve built up enough mutual trust to share a full manuscript.

Finally, if you’re really serious about protecting your work, don’t post it online where anyone can see and potentially copy it and don’t leave your laptop in your car where anyone can see and potentially smash your window to get it.

MYTH #8: Before you start querying, buy an ISBN and have your manuscript copyrighted.

This is a common reaction to the fear-of-idea-stealing, but it’s unnecessary and possibly confusing and expensive. If you’re seeking traditional publication, once you sell your book to a publisher, that publisher will assign the completed manuscript an ISBN and will submit it through the proper channels to have it copyrighted in your name.

MYTH #9: Agents only want to work with published authors, or with authors who have publishing or celebrity connections.

While some agents are closed to new client submissions, many (we’re talking tons of) agents are open to — and actively seeking — queries from debut authors. When I signed on with my agent, I’d never been published, and the only celebrity connection I had was my imaginary domestic partnership with Aragorn, as played by Viggo Mortensen, who never returns my calls. Agents want to work with authors who write good books. Period. So if you write a good book, you have a good chance at landing an agent, no prior publication or celeb-besties required.

MYTH #10: If you know someone who has an agent, ask her to recommend you to that agent, or just tell that agent in your query letter that your friend suggested you query him.

If you do this, well… Welcome to Awkwardsville. Population: You. And probably your friend. Because no one wants to be put on the spot like this. If your friend has an agent, and her agent is accepting new clients, and she thinks her agent would love your manuscript and that you two would be a good professional fit, your friend will approach you first. She will encourage you to query her agent and she’ll offer to make the introduction. And don’t try to be sneaky by name-dropping your friend in the query letter if she hasn’t given you permission to do so. Agents follow up with their authors if someone claims that the author has referred him, and lying about this — or assuming it’s okay without getting permission — will burn your bridges with both the agent and the friend.

MYTH #11: The best way to secure an agent is to first seek out blurbs (personal recommendations or favorable quotes) for your unpublished manuscript from published authors.

Blurbs are placed on book jackets and marketing materials to help sell books to bookstores, librarians, and readers. They are not typically used to attract agents. That said, if your spouse or best friend is, say, J.K. Rowling, and she promised to blurb anything you ever write, you should probably mention this in your query letter.

But for 99% of aspiring authors, this isn’t the case. And unless the published author in question is a close personal friend of yours — and even then, I’d tread lightly here — do not ask him to read your unpublished manuscript for a potential blurb. Published authors are asked to blurb books all the time, but not until those books have been agented, sold, revised, and copyedited — essentially, ready to hit the shelves. Many authors won’t read unsolicited, unpublished manuscripts for legal reasons — they don’t want to be accused of stealing an idea in the future if the author happens to be writing about a similar subject. Further, securing a blurb on a manuscript that will ultimately go through significant revisions after it’s sold is pointless. The final product might look nothing like the original manuscript, which is why authors don’t generally read books for blurbs until all of the revisions and changes have been made. Otherwise the author might be all, “This is the best book about vampires I’ve ever read.” And by the time the book hits the shelves, it’s actually called “Goblins: A Love Story.”

So, hold off on the blurb requests until your editor asks you to seek them out.

MYTH #12: Agents and editors require authors to have a strong social media presence. So if you haven’t already, better start blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking, tumblring, YouTubing, Instagraming, and other socially-networked-networking right away.

Agents, like anyone in the business of getting books into the hands of readers, love when authors have built-in followings and fans prior to publication. An aspiring author with a strong web presence? Awesome. But it’s not awesome enough to land you an agent if your book sucks, and it’s certainly not something you need to rush out and do just to snag an agent’s attention. Your book should be your top priority, because that’s the thing the agent is looking for first and foremost — a great story, great writing, great hook. If you happen to have tens of thousands of active, engaged followers in your target audience across your social media platforms? Cool. Can’t hurt to mention it. But your webbyness isn’t going to make or break your chances of getting an agent. The quality of your book is what counts.

MYTH #13: If you you receive a book offer from an editor that you’ve pitched at a conference, you don’t need an agent.

Unless you’re a lawyer with a literary or entertainment background, or you’re the spouse or child or other relation of such a person, you need an agent to negotiate your contract, to make sure you’re getting the best deal possible, to go to bat for you over any issues with your publisher, to sell your foreign and sub-rights, to help you understand the marketplace and how your work fits into it, and — of course — to lunch with you in New York. AmIRight? ;-)

Some agents are also very involved editorially, helping you revise your work or even helping you generate new ideas. My agent also talks me down off the ledge whenever I get too angsty about the business, which is pretty often, and really, you can’t put a price on that. He also likes cupcakes. Point is, a good agent is worth his 15% commission a hundred times over. Don’t shortcut it.

MYTH #14: Books with intense language or “edgy” content — sex and sexuality, substance abuse, incest, violence, bullying, suicide, to name a few — are not appropriate for young adult literature. YA agents and editors will force you to tone down edgy content or publish it as an adult novel.

This shows a serious lack of research and exposure to contemporary YA literature. If you honestly believe this malarkey, get thee to a bookstore or library STAT, and read everything on the YA shelves. Lather, rinse, repeat.

MYTH #15: If you’re successful with one book, you might get pigeonholed. Agents and publishers will force you to continue writing in that style or genre in hopes of duplicating that success, even if you want to try something new.

Following a successful debut, publishers might encourage you to continue writing in a similar genre or style in hopes of building on that success and growing a loyal following. That only makes sense, right? But this certainly doesn’t mean you’ll be pigeonholed, forced to write something you’re not interested in writing, or forbidden from writing something completely different.

Now, if you’ve sold a multi-book contract — say, for your current book and then another to-be-determined book — you may have to work a little more closely within the publisher’s expectations. For example, I sold my first book, Twenty Boy Summer, in a two-book deal. When it came time to start working on the second book, I put together a proposal to share with my editor, and eventually we came to an agreement on what I’d write next — Fixing Delilah, which was another contemporary realistic romance. Since I’d accepted the two-book deal with Twenty Boy Summer as the first book, the assumption was that the second book would be written in a similar style. If I’d wanted to write an urban fantasy, that may or may not have worked.

However, once you’ve fulfilled your contract obligations, you’re free to write anything you’d like. Your publisher is free to pass on publishing it, and she may ask if you’d consider writing something like your last book, but that doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to write something new. That’s totally up to you, and if you’re interested in writing different genres or types of novels, you can discuss the best plan of action with your agent before you start the next new book (yet another reason to have an agent).

MYTH #16: Since witches are popular on the shelves and on TV right now, you should write a book about witches to increase your chances of getting an agent and a book deal.

For the record? I love witches, and I’ll never discourage an author from writing a book about them. But… only if you love witches too. Remember, traditional publication is a long process. From the time you accept a book deal, it may be two years before your book hits the shelves. So the books you’re seeing as trends on the store shelves today were actually written and sold two years ago. If you write a book about witches just to cash in on the trend, you’ll lose — witches will be replaced with a new trend two years from now. As a matter of fact, I just read a post from a YA agent stating that she won’t consider any witch stories now — that trend has passed.

However, like I said, if you love witches, you should totally write a witch book. There is always room for a well-written, passionately told story. But only if the author means it. No trend-chasing!

That’s it. Myths busted. Eyes glazed. Pajamas… worn. My work here is done.

I think I’ve covered just about every question and myth I’ve come across in my inbox of late. If I missed anything, or if there’s anything you’d like to know more about, or if you’d like to disagree or share your own experiences or otherwise add to the discussion, please leave your comments and questions below.

As always, happy reading and happy writing!


The Book of Broken Hearts is Out… And It Needs Your Help!

May 29, 2013
The Book of Broken Hearts

The Book of Broken Hearts needs your help!

The Book of Broken Hearts officially hit the shelves on May 21st, which is, like, YAY! But it hasn’t hit all the shelves. Which is, you know, BOO! I’ve been debating whether to blog about this situation, hoping against all odds that it would resolve itself. But it hasn’t, and now that I’ve officially heard from readers who’ve had trouble finding the book at Barnes & Noble, I wanted to let you know what’s going on.

The Situation (super short version of a boring tale of corporate woe)

Just because a book is published doesn’t guarantee it a spot on the store shelves (even if the stores have successfully sold an author’s previous books). B&N, like all brick and mortar book stores, decides which books to shelve in its physical locations–sometimes nationally, sometimes on a store by store basis–and they order those titles directly from publishers. Additionally, publishers pay for premium placement of books–those “Summer Reads” end cap displays and colorfully arranged stacks on the tables are all sponsored by publishers (it’s called “co-op”), and the rates and terms are negotiated, like so many things in the book biz.

My publisher for The Book of Broken Hearts is currently in negotiations with B&N, the nature of which I don’t fully understand–it’s too crazy-making to follow, especially when I need to be working on the next book! But the bottom line and bummer of it all is that they’ve yet to reach an agreement. As a result, B&N has cut orders drastically on many of my publisher’s titles, including mine. So, unlike all of my previous novels… super sadface… The Book of Broken Hearts won’t be available in many B&N stores.

It’s a difficult situation. As an author who’s still trying to connect with new fans, I rely on the only remaining national chain bookstore to help grab the attention of random browsers, people who’d only discover The Book of Broken Hearts by seeing it on the shelves, picking it up, and giving it a chance. Now, I’ve lost the opportunity to connect with some of those new readers. And longtime fans who walk into a Barnes & Noble specifically looking for a copy might be disappointed to learn it’s not in stock.

Many of my author friends are in the same boat, and we’re all just trying to support one another and keep our chins up. It’s one of those tough breaks in a business that’s full of constant ups and downs, good news and bad. It’s one of the many reasons writers consume so much chocolate and wine. :-)

But before you join me in the group ugly cry, wait! All is not lost, because…

Dear Readers and Friends, You Can Help!

If you’re interested in reading The Book of Broken Hearts (or any S&S title affected by this situation), there are still lots of ways you can get your hands on a copy and help support your favorite authors:

  1. Shop indie. Independent bookstores rock. They’re super supportive of authors, passionate about the books they carry, boosters of the local economy, curators of local literary events, and they’re eager to help you find exactly what you’re looking for (and maybe some stuff you didn’t even know you were looking for). My favorite indie is Tattered Cover here in Denver, but you can find a store close to you on IndieBound.
  2. If B&N is your store for all things bookish, and your local B&N doesn’t have The Book of Broken Hearts on the shelves, ask them to order a copy for you.
  3. Order a copy on Amazon.com or BN.com (the online site should always have copies available, regardless of in-store stock)
  4. Purchase it online as an ebook

If you’ve already read the book (thank you!), and you want to be especially awesome and earn lots of virtual hugs and chocolate-covered gratitude, there are a few other ways to show the love:

  1. Post a review on Amazon.com or BN.com. This is hugely helpful. Like spotting new books on the store shelves, honest reader reviews help other readers with similar tastes discover new books. Plus, as a book earns more reviews online, it tends to show up more often in search results and in “readers who liked this book also liked that one” promos.
  2. Ask your library to order a copy for their collection. Libraries are another local resource for readers and authors alike, and they’re a great way to help readers discover new books.
  3. Tell a friend. If you’ve got a reader friend who might enjoy the book, tell her about it! Better yet, get her a copy as a gift! (wink wink)
  4. Encourage reader friends to lather, rinse, repeat on some or all of the above. :-)

Did Someone Say Chocolate?

You guys have already been so supportive and amazing–from those first joyful days of seeing Twenty Boy Summer on the shelves in 2009, to every new book release since. I mean it when I say that I wouldn’t survive this career if not for you. Seriously. Without readers and fans, I wouldn’t be a writer. I’d be a person who hangs out in PJs all day entertaining the voices in her head, wondering who ate all the chocolate. So to all of you, whether you’re longtime fans or family members who are forced to be fans, whether you’re a teen or just a young adult at heart, whether you’re a librarian or a blogger or a bookseller or a publisher or a fellow author, THANK YOU. For reading, for sharing your love of books with the world. For being such awesome and supportive bookworms. For giving me the honor of telling stories for a living, no matter how hard the business side of it gets. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Hugs. Chocolate. More hugs.

~Sarah


Race in YA Lit: Wake Up & Smell the Coffee-Colored Skin, White Authors!

April 30, 2012

In a new series entitled Y.A. for Grownups, The Atlantic Wire posted an article exploring The Ongoing Problem of Race in YA.

Like the title states, race in YA isn’t a new problem, nor is it going away. When I scan the YA bookshelves—whether my own or the extensive store displays—the issue is clear:

I spy with my little eye something… white.

Barbie® Fashionistas™

White authors, white characters, white faces, white girls. The scenario isn’t entirely unlike my high school graduation, but it’s no longer the world I see (or want to see) when I look out the window. So why the disconnect?

Plenty of YA authors of color are writing about diverse characters, often struggling to get those books out into the world and into the hands of readers. Discussions about the issue focus on a trifecta of economic challenges doused in racial politics: consumers aren’t demanding and buying diverse fiction. So booksellers aren’t stocking and promoting it. So the publishing industry isn’t actively seeking, acquiring, and publishing it (with covers and flap copy that appropriately reflect the characters and story). So consumers aren’t demanding and buying it…

Which came first—the chicken, the egg, or the egg white omelet—I don’t know. But the discussion glosses over an obvious gap: white authors.

Demographically speaking, caucasians comprise the majority of young adult authors (according to Zetta Elliot’s 2011 interview with author Jacqueline Woodson, people of color make up less than 5 percent of children’s book authors published in the U.S. annually). So when you look at the sea of white stretching on forever along the shores of YA literature, know that white authors are by and large the ones putting it out there.

Which means we’re the ones who can—and must—change it by actively diversifying the stuff we’re writing, and by doing so in authentic, meaningful ways.

One Café, Hold The Au Lait: A Primer for White Authors

Actively diversifying our fiction does not mean any of the following:

  • Giving a character almond-shaped eyes or coffee-mocha-latte-chocolate-hazelnut-caramel-cappuccino-colored skin. In fact, as a general rule, writers seeking inspiration solely from Starbucks menus probably need to dial down the caffeine.
  • Slotting in a random person of color for no other reason than to break up the whiteness (especially if you’re writing about a place that is mostly white. Like, a Rod Stewart concert, or maybe a deer hunt).
  • Sneaking in a few non-white celebrity guest appearances on a poster, an iPod, or a character’s favorite TV show. I mean, I love Fresh Prince as much as anyone, because Parents Just Don’t Understand, but no—that doesn’t count.
  • Including a non-white character whose only real difference from the white characters is the color of his skin and/or his snappy catch phrases. Word!
  • Conducting a find-and-replace in Word to change Breanna and Chad to Belicia and Chen. CTRL+F what?
  • Putting a sushi or taco bar in the school cafeteria. Which is one of those things that sounds like a good idea at the time, but usually isn’t.

Diversity in fiction isn’t about tokenism, filling up imaginary “affirmative fiction” quotas, or embarking on a PC quest to be “inclusive.” It’s about respecting our readers.

Teen book reviewers

It’s about loving and supporting all teens, letting them know they’re important by giving them voices and honoring their unique perspectives, experiences, and dreams in our stories. It’s not random. It’s not an afterthought. It’s an intentional, thoughtful, and respectful choice to stop perpetuating homogeneity.

Why Do We White-ify YA, Anyway?

The small-but-still-beating “people are mostly decent” part of my heart wants to believe that when white authors neglect to diversify our stories, it’s not out of racism, laziness, or even ignorance, but because of two oft-misinterpreted writing tips: 1) Write what you know, and 2) YA novels need a clear moral message. When it comes to diversity, both pseudo-commandments inspire fear.

Fear #1: As a caucasian, I’m not qualified to write about or from the perspective of people of color.

White Boxer Dog Loki Puppy TWhile there’s some merit to seeking inspiration from the wellspring of our own experiences, when taken literally, the advice to write what you know stifles creativity and shuts down our imaginations. It tells us that unless we’re black or gay or a woman, that we can’t write about those kinds of characters because we can’t possibly know them.

Saying that a white writer is not qualified to write a black or a Mexican or Indian or Philippino character is like saying Stephenie Meyer can’t write about falling in love with vampires because she’s married to a human, or that I can’t write a male POV because I don’t have, um… a beard. And by that logic, we wouldn’t have stories about dogs, either.

I don’t buy it. We’re writers. Storytellers. Weavers of tales great and small. It’s our job to make things up, to imagine, to explore different perspectives through the eyes of our characters. This isn’t to say we can plug-n-play a few multicultural characters into our work or rely on stereotypes or assumptions for crafting our fictional friends (see aforementioned anti-starbucks advice), but that’s writer 101 stuff. Cardboard, one-dimensional people have no place in a story, whether they’re white, black, brown, purple, or invisible. Authenticity is important, but thanks to the library, the internet, and, you know, other human beings, it’s possible to learn about something we’ve never personally experienced. Sometimes all it takes is a simple question: Hey, people who’ve been there, what’s your take on this? People want their voices heard. They want to share. They want to help.

Race is a sticky thing though, isn’t it? We’ve gotten so divisive in this country that we’re often afraid to mention it. Comedians have created entire routines on the phenomenon that is white people trying to describe a black person. I’ve witnessed it—you’ll inevitably get detailed run-down of his clothing, his hair, his shoes, his car, but rarely the simple statement: he’s black, or he has dark brown skin. When people actually describe the race, it’s in a whisper. “He’s… um… he’s… bla—he’s African American…”

Seriously? We all need to take a collective drink of Let’s Get The Hell Over Ourselves (and chase it down with a swig of We’re All Human, Remember?). Writers imagine. We take risks. We experience, and we ask, and we imagine again. And then we write it all down for other people to experience the moment they pick up our books.

Fear #2: If I write about people of color, my story must teach a moral lesson and take a stand on an issue.

From The Atlantic Wire:

There’s also the rather unfair expectation put upon writers of books featuring non-white characters that they still have to make a statement, or that they’re speaking for all people of that race. “It does get frustrating when your book comes out and other people think you’re making a statement about all black people,” says [author Coe] Booth. “There are so few books featuring black characters, with the one or five that come out, there’s so much pressure to represent all of this particular race.” That’s not a problem white writers have. People in the industry “need to open up the thinking about what a book by a person of color is supposed to do,” she adds. “It’s not an education; why do books by authors of color have to have that much more responsibility? It’s just supposed to be a book.”

I disagree that this isn’t a problem white authors face. Anyone writing characters of color faces this problem, but non-white authors bear the brunt of it because of the expectation that they educate people about their “experience” (whatever that may be).

Our society has created and perpetuated the expectation that, with a few notable exceptions, YA books with non-white characters either tackle a social injustice head on or strip out the character’s entho/cultural/gender/etc. uniqueness altogether. The black character, then, must either struggle under the weight of “the black experience” or blend in so completely that the only black thing about him is his coffee-colored skin (which is of course described with a frequency the white character’s “peaches and cream” colored skin is not).

The whole conundrum is compounded by the fact that plenty of cranky grownups still cling to the misguided belief that YA exists solely to teach kids lessons. The result, if the Atlantic Wire article is indicative of the larger problem, is that whenever we write a non-white (or a non-hetero, non-insert-socio-ethno-psychological-category-here) character, we’re taking it upon ourselves to write the non-whatever “experience.” Whatever else happens in the story, my gay character should have a difficult coming out story, and he should be bullied so that I can send a message that homophobia is wrong. My black characters should be subject to racism so I can preach about diversity and tolerance.

Issue stories are important, and there are wonderful books addressing racism, homophobia, bullying, and other human ills head on. But like Coe says, it’s not an education. Not every book has to tackle the issues. Some stories are simply about other challenges of adolescence, real and fantastic: falling in love, the sudden death of a loved one, hunting vampires, fitting in with peers (or not), raising the dead, road tripping, portal tripping, learning magic, getting sick, having sex, exploring passions, surviving the zombie apocalypse that was started by that goober who just raised the dead, trying out for the school play, getting in a fight, saving the planet from alien invaders… just to name a few obstacles our beloved white fictional teens face over the pages of their daily lives.

What about our beloved black fictional teens? Indians? Asians? French-Canadians?

Can a black kid slay dragons without turning his quest into an anti-racism manifesto? Dragons can be dangerous. Maybe they need to be slayed, and maybe this kid is quick on his feet and handy with the magic sword… and he happens to be black. Can we see his unique and special worldview as a young black dragon slayer, or does he have to take a stand against bigotry too?

Can a Mexican girl fall in love with her best friend without exploring immigration policies or her grandmother’s homemade tamales? Conversely, can she just enjoy her grandmother’s tamales because they kick ass and not because she must reconnect with her Mexican ancestry so that readers understand the importance of one’s cultural heritage? I mean, I love tamales, and I totally respect and appreciate the culture from which they originated, and maybe this girl does too.

But dudes, sometimes a tamale is just a tamale.

Vegan Tamales with Beans and Rice

Speaking of tamales… I teach an advanced YA novel class at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. One of my students is a Mexican American writer working on a YA urban fantasy. In class, she admitted that people have often “encouraged” her to abandon the fantasy and write about “the Mexican American experience.” As if there’s only one. As if she’s obligated by her ethnicity to speak up, to teach those all-important lessons. “Look,” she told us. “Just because I’m Latina doesn’t mean my characters have to go around speaking Spanish and making tortillas. I want to write a different story.”

Just Who is Responsible for Writing Diverse Characters in YA?

The sea of white on the YA bookshelves has to change. And the onus shouldn’t fall entirely to authors of color, nor to the aforementioned trifecta of readers, booksellers, and the Borg of Industry.

The responsibility belongs equally to all writers.

diversity matters

I hesitate to even use the word “responsibility,” because it’s actually not that. We’re writers. Our only responsibility as far as I’m concerned is being honest and authentic in our work. But to be honest and authentic, we have to address this. We live in a diverse world. To pretend otherwise is more fantastical than believing that sex with vampires is a good idea (not that I’m judging!).

Our stories must be diverse, and I can make no better case than this quote from John Truby in his book, The Anatomy of Story:

The dramatic code expresses the idea that human beings can become a better version of themselves, psychologically and morally. And that’s why people love it.

Stories don’t show the audience the “real world”; they show the audience the story world. The story world isn’t a copy of life as it is. It’s life as human beings imagine it could be.

“Life as human beings imagine it could be.”

Think about that. Really sit with it. Pretty powerful, right? Isn’t that why we write, because we imagine things can be better? Because we believe in the power and wonder of imagination? Because we know that YA books are not billboards, but conversations?

Why is diversity in fiction important? Because diversity in life is important. And when we exclude—intentionally or otherwise—characters of color from our work, we do send a billboard message to readers. We tell them that people of color aren’t there, aren’t important, aren’t worthy of our stories. That they don’t deserve to be part of the conversation of our books. That reading isn’t for them. That they don’t matter. That they don’t even register on our radar.

CB106492

I adore teenagers. That’s why I write for them. They’re special and magical and full of life; they’re truly the best of us. As young adult authors, our words have power. The power to entertain. The power to inform. The power to inspire. And most importantly, the power to change the lives of teen readers—to really make a difference. If, as Truby believes, stories express the idea that human beings can become better versions of ourselves, then I want to show YA readers that those better versions look like them, too.

All of them.


All images copyright of their respective owners. Posted with permission under Creative Commons licenses via Flickr.


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