The Writing Life

It’s Review Season

This time tomorrow, I will have my first review for SILVER SPARROW. Although the novel won’t be released until May, these early reviews are published in the trades so that bookstore and libraries know what’s coming down the pike, so they can order (or not) in advance. The first one out of the gate is Kirkus.
When Kirkus almost closed down last year, a lot of writers did the happy dance. It’s because Kirkus is notoriously brutal. The review I got for LEAVING ATLANTA made me cry. (My very first review ever, and it was heartbreaker.) The one for THE UNTELLING just made me mad.
So, it’s that time again.
I am hoping for good reviews– doesn’t everybody? But I can’t live and die by the critics. It’s not good to give your power to other people, particularly people you don’t even know. With the pre-pub reviews, you can’t ever consider the source, because the reviews are submitted anonymously.
It’s not that reviews don’t matter. A “star” or just a positive notice can get the attention of booksellers and persuade them to give you a chance. And a negative review, in addition to being hurtful, can hurt your chances of being ordered for a library. (Not to mention it’s embarassing. Imagine your ex reading a slam of your latest work!)
But the key is to not take it personally and to keep moving on, no matter what happens. And I say no matter what happens, because the review might be good. It might be a rave! But even so, that anonymous person cannot be in charge of what a writer thinks about her own book– for better or for worse.
So, anyway, deep breath. Here goes nothin.

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Letter To Vanessa

Dear Vanessa,
I see you everyday at my job working at the coffee stand. Although Rutgers-Newark is a really diverse place, as far as college campuses go, it’s still easy to pick a sister out in the crowd. I see you every day making coffee, ringing up purchases, organizing displays, and reading like crazy. I try not to be too nosy, but I can see that you like to read many different types of books, but pretty much all of it is by black authors. When you opened that cupboard one time, it was like you had every piece of urban literature ever written. There were other authors in there too, like Pearl Cleage,Connie Briscoe and Eric Jerome Dickey.
When you asked me about my novels, I have to admit, that I was a little nervous. I gave you The Untelling and tried not to look at your face when I would see you sitting there reading it. I shouldn’t have worried. Just two days later you blew kisses said, “That’s one beautiful book.” I was happy enough to dance right there in front of the cash register.
It’s hard to explain what it means to me as a writer, a woman writer, an American writer, a Black American writer– to have my book read by a reader, a woman reader, an American reader, A Black American woman reader passing the time on her job with a book.
I read a really interesting article the other day by Roxane Gay where she basically went off about the fact that Best American Short Stories 2010 seemed to be all about rich white people and rich white people problems. I haven’t seen the book yet, but I am sure that she’s right. It’s nothing new, but still frustrating and– truth be told– hurtful.
Nobody that is compiling an anthology or end of year list is going to ask you what books you liked best in 2010. (They probably won’t ask me either!) The people making the lists, crowning the kings and queens of the year, have no idea about the books stacked in your cupboard. (They probably never heard of many the authors on my office shelves, either!)
Vanessa, I’m getting off track here, but the point is that your opinion means everything to me. I’m going to work today and since you asked, I am bringing you the manuscript pages of my new book, SILVER SPARROW. I really really hope you like it.
Yours truly,

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I Have Changed The Title of My Book

I can’t even express how heavy this has been weighing on my mind. I don’t really like to blog about my problems while they are happening, so this is why I was pretty silent these last few weeks. Just when we were wrapping things up with the novel that I thought was called SILVER GIRL, this popped up on Amazon.
I was totally devastated. It was decided that I should change my title because it’s bad bad news to have two books called the same thing pubbing in the same season. Just imagine if you heard me on NPR or something talking abotu MY Silver Girl and you see a big-a display for this other book and bought it.
I cried, y’all and cried some more. You know how when Charlie Brown and them cry and the tears fly out from around their heads like bullets? Well that was me. Projectile weeping.
I had invested so much in the title SILVER GIRL. What was going to happen with all my plans for my Silver Party? And even more than that, was the feeling that I was not in control of my book and by extension my life. As Shirley Anne Williams said in her masterpiece Dessa RoseCan’t I have nothing?
The up side of this is that my friends really came through. My phone was blowing up with folks sending titles. My daddy really went above and beyond. He said he felt like he was trying to win a prize off the radio. My favorite title he sent was “Hey! What Do You Mean That’s Your Daddy?” (The novel is about a bigamist–two wives, two daughters, one big secret.) All my friends came through with suggestions, but nothing was quite perfect. We came really close, I am freiends with some really smart people, but still…
Then, in a phone brainstorming session with my friend Mitchell we came up with the best title ever. Even better than my beloved SIVLER GIRL. We were discussion something else entirely and he said, “I know my portion.” I said, “What do you mean by that.” He said, “It’s from the song, His Eye Is On The Sparrow. ‘Jesus is my portion.’” I almost choked on my cup of coffee. That song is in my novel like three times.
And with that, SILVER SPARROW, was born.
I feel good about the title and I love that I came to it with the help of all my friends and family. When I wrote this novel I was at a very isolated period in my life. I was on my own and I pulled through, but while it was good to know that I could do it all by myself, it was sad, too. So this little crisis at the end allowed me to ask for, and to receive help. The book is really finished now. It’s been blessed with love.
So, ladies and gents–
SILVER SPARROW to be published by Algonquin Books on May 24, 2011.

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I WIsh I Knew How To Quit You, NBAs

The National Book Awards finalists are being announced today at noon (EST) and I wish I didn’t know about it. The truth is that I don’t want to care about the NBA or any of these other huge literary wards. I know– as you probably do too– that these awards do not necessarily reflect the best books of the year. And they don’t represent the most important books of the year, either. (I think “best” and “important” aren’t always the same thing.) But just to make things complicated, these committees sometimes get it right. But either way, I just don’t want to be invested in these decisions. It’s a recipe for heartbreak.

On the 60th anniversary of the National Book Awards, I was invited to blog about an award-wing book of fiction that was meaningful to me. I was shocked to learned than only in 1980 was an African-American woman chosen as a winner of this award. (It was rare tie- both Gloria Naylor and Alice Walker won the prize.) It was a really disheartening discovery.

Why why should I have been so bummed out? Not being on the list of winners didn’t mean that black women hadn’t written books that matter, that had changed people’s lives, and added to the national and international conversations. I should have been a little irritated by my discovery, but not all out blue.

But still I was.

Last year, when Jayne Anne Phillips didn’t win for Lark and Termite, I literally cried into my dinner plate. It was a very hard night. In addition to the fact that no women or people of color were honored that night, I was snubbed by a writer whom I admire and I was cornered in the bathroom by a woman who insisted that I give her tips on how to style her child’s hair. It was a pretty marginalizing affair.

Nevertheless, I will no doubt purchase a ticket to attend this year’s event. Why? Because I can’t quite let go of these events mean something, that a win for a book I admire matters. I mean, of course it matters in what it will do for the author’s career– but what I am talking is less quantifiable than that.

I know it’s foolhardy, but my relationship with these book prizes is like my relationship with a bad boyfriend that I just can’t quit. I know he’s trifling, but sometimes he’s nice, and I keep telling myself that his heart is good, and that he will change. Silly as it is, I keep holding out for happily ever after.

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Pretty Ain’t Easy

There is a chapter that I had to take out of Leaving Atlanta where Octavia gets her hair pressed for the very first time. She thinks that she will get to a salon and pick her style out of a hair magazine, but her mom sends to an old lady’s kitchen. When Octavia complains about her experience the old lady– whose hair is so thin that it looks like spider webs stretched over a bowling ball– well, the old lady says, “Pretty ain’t easy.”

When I wrote that line, I was about twenty-five and I was mostly thinking about how much time I spent on my own hair, nails, and make up. But now that I am almost forty, I am thinking more about the politics of pretty.

Pretty, as you know, is a woman’s trap. There is the endless pursuit of pretty- and don’t let me get into the cultural stuff. We’ll let ToMo handle that with The Bluest Eye. And then, once you catch pretty, there is the problem of being too pretty and not seen as smart enough. But if you’re not pretty enough, there are consequences, too. It’s a trap and it’s hard not to end up gnawing off your own foot. An friend told me that for my author photo, I tend to favor “beauty over mood”, which in her view was a mistake. I didn’t even know what to do with that piece of information, or how a person would go about implementing it.

But the author herself isn’t the only factor is the conversation about pretty. There is the matter of the book cover.

I want a pretty book cover. For one, I really like pretty things. (My friends can testify to this.) BUT… I don’t want my book to be *too* pretty. I mean, I want serious review attention. And as always, my book deals with some not-so-pretty subject matter. (SILVER GIRL is about the secret daughter of a married man. “Illegitimacy” is a pretty heavy issue.) At the same time, it’s a delicious story about family, sisterhood, love, and scandal. And the word “silver” in the title just invites shiny and shiny is one of my favorite things. My friend, Lauren, told me that all cultures think that shiny things are beautiful. (So, ladies, slather on the lip gloss!) But do I really want you to think of lip gloss when you see my book. Well, I do if it makes you pick it up.

I don’t think that male writers go through this. (Poor Jonathan Franzen– he is my new shorthand for “privileged” now that Updike is gone to glory.) I really doubt that Mr. Franzen really had to worry about whether or not he or his book were too pretty/not pretty enough.
And while we are on the subject of gender here is another question– will a man read a pretty book in public? I guess that’s why we have the Kindle. And should I even worry about that?
One thing I have learned in the ten years I have been in publishing is that every issue that you deal with in your day to day life is magnified when you publish a book.
My publisher and I are still working on the book cover, wanting to strike the perfect note. Algonquin does great work– bestselling great work, so I know I am in good hands. But you know, this book is my baby and I want everything to be just right. Still, as always, the answer to every writerly problem is to just keep my head down, get writing on the next book. Control what I can control and just have faith.

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We Came and Celebrated With Her

The Elders

Originally uploaded by kleopatrjones

On Tuesday, September 21, hundreds of people gathered in Harrisonburg, Virginia to celebrate the life of Lucille Clifton. It was one of those experiences that made me remember why I love my life.

The program, organized by Joanne Gabbin and Nikki Giovanni featured 73 writers who each read one Miss Lucille’s poems. (I recited my favorite, “Here Rests.”) The experience was beyond beautiful. Imagine Sonia Sanchez, Mari Evans, Rita Dove, Honoree Fanonne Jeffers, Tony Medina, Kamilah Aisha Moon, Haki Madhubuti, and many many others reading every one of your favorite poems.

One thing that was clear to me as the night went on was the great respect that the younger writers had for our elders. We even called the that, “elders,” and we said it without irony. Everyone in that Treasure and her Daddyroom loved Lucille Clifton and respected the gift of her art, but also what she had done to make our careers possible.

I have often read about writers who feel they must dethrone their forefathers and mothers. I am happy to say, I don’t know nothing about that. I know whose shoulders I stand on.

For the grand finale, Nikki Giovanni took the stage and brought about one hundred of us with her. Together we recited “Won’t You Celebrate With Me.” It took a while because Nikki called upon many people to give the lines their own It's a love thanginterpretation. (Rita Dove sings like an angel, btw.) A ten year old interpreted a verse with a burst of music from his violin. But all together, we called, we responded, we shouted, we intoned, we boomed.
“come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.”

By the last line, we were all on our feet. “And has failed! Has failed! Has failed!”

(more photos here.)

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It’s All Good

Gotta Get The Kitchen

Originally uploaded by kleopatrjones

I will admit that I have a thing about hair– my own hair and everybody else. As for my own, I do it myself and I love to chat up strangers in the elevator and find out what products they use. (My current fave is the Curls line. Great for a well-defined twist-out.) I also love thinking about what hair means to people, especially black women. For me the most interesting character in Their Eyes Were Watching God is Janie’s hair! As a matter of fact, Janie’s very brown skin and very long hair inspired two of the characters in The Silver Girl.

Gwen and Dana are the secret wife and daughter of James Witherspoon and the whole book revolves around this set up. As you can imagine, Gwen and Dana have an unconventional take on life– I mean, it takes a special person to be okay with the fact that you husband has a whole other family and you must live in the shadows. One way that they make themselves feel better is that they are more sophisticated and better looking that his “legitimate” family. And what’s the main proof of this beauty? The fact that mother and daughter both have about two feet of hair that hangs to the middle of their backs. And when you add to the mix that the “real” wife owns a beauty parlor, we’ve got conflict, baby! (The photo to the right is me getting my hair pressed as research.)

So, on to the topic of this post.

My editor and I are working on the catalog copy. This is the brochure with which the publisher will announce next season’s book. it includes a photo of the author, the book, and quick summary meant to snare the attention of book sellers. I love what my editor has written, but there is one phrase that is tripping me up. Here’s the sentence”

For Chaurisse, Dana is a glamorous friend—a “silver girl” possessing all the beauty, popularity, and good hair that Chaurisse thinks would make her happy.

As you probably guessed, the phrase is good hair. Yes, Chaurisse is really impressed by Dana’s hair. And, she probably would describe it as “good hair.” But I am having an emotional response to the word choice. I don’t want it to seem like I think that some people’s hair is good and others isn’t.

When I was a kid, I felt a lot of pain about this good-hair/bad-hair mess and I don’t want to appear to be perpetrating it. Do you think that putting the phrase in talics will show that I am sort of mocking the idea? Or should I just rephrase, or leave any hair-talk out of the situation all together?

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The Case For Using An Agent

I have been represented by Jane Dystel since 1999, when she called me up on Christmas Eve and said that she was interested my first novel, Leaving Atlanta. There is a little prequel to that particular story, but I will save it for another post. Anyway, to celebrate her birthday, I thought I would post on why I think it’s best to go into publishing with an agent.
Just in case there are folks out there who are new to the publishing game, let me give a quick run down on what an agent is and how an agent works. Your agent acts as a go-between for you and publishers. Many agents—Jane included—used to be editors, so they have personal relationships with editors. The agent decides which editors at the various publishing houses will be into you. Then she sends the manuscript with a personal pitch. For this, you pay her 15% of any money you make from the book. (Little coda here: any agent who asks for money up front is a crook. Run!)
Anyway, some writers prefer not to work with agents, mostly because they don’t want to give up the money. Far be it from me to urge anyone in this rough economy to part with cash, but in my opinion, it’s well, well, well worth it. Here’s a bullet point anecdote-y list as to why.

  • You are probably really eager to have a book deal and will lose your cool in negotiations. Face it, for your first book, you want publisher so bad you would pay them if it came to that. You need someone to stand your ground when you are too chicken to stand it for yourself. About three years ago, a publisher called me inquiring about my friend, Dwayne Betts, who has an interesting life story. The editor was interested in talking to him about a memoir. I refused to hand over his contact info, until I had put him in touch with Jane. (And the story has a very happy ending.)
  • You don’t know much about contracts. Whenever we get a contract Jane goes through it with her pen scratching things out and writing other things in. I don’t really know what all that scratching means, but she’s been in the business for decades. Remember most contracts are written to serve the person who wrote the contract. The agent’s job is to get you your fair share.
  • If you’re a first timer, you don’t have a brand. Your agent is like a seal of approval. When your manuscript comes over an editor’s desk with your agents letterhead attached, you get to borrow some of your agents cache and reputation. Leaving Atlanta because one of Jane’s projects and was no longer a random stack of paper (on which I had pinned all my little hopes and dreams!).
  • You will give up, she won’t. Leaving Atlanta was rejected 22 times before it was accepted by TimeWarner. I know I would have thrown in the towel after ten. Why? Because I am sensitive. And also because I was not a professional so I didn’t know that double digit rejections were not all that unusual. And maybe even because Jane believed in me more than I believed in myself.
  • She’s bolder than you. When I met Elisabeth Scharlatt, the publisher of Algonquin, I told Jane. (I was excited. Algonquin has always been my favorite press!) Imagine my shock when I ran into Elisabeth the next day and she said she had heard from Jane. I was so embarrassed. Was this presumptuous? Elisabeth said, “She’s just doing what an agent is supposed to do. Look out for your interests.”
  • Sh*t Happens. Once the manuscript has been accepted there are a million opportunities for drama before publication and after that. I call Jane whenever I find myself in a tight spot. She has intervened on my behalf when I was facing a pretty ugly experience at a regional book festival. She has stepped in to help me negotiate my cover art. She is constantly in touch with the publisher to make sure things stay on schedule. My motto is “When the going gets tough, call Jane.” And when times are good, she’s there, too. When I win prizes—even little ones—she has sent flowers.
    So, these are the reasons that I choose to work with an agent in general and Jane in particular. I’m in good hands and, for that, I am very grateful. Happy Birthday, Jane.

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    My “Big Break”, so to speak

    This blog entry comes to you live from the Acela train to Washington, DC. I have been aboard the train about twenty-minutes and I have have already eaten ALL the snacks I brought with me. (What does that say about my personality?) Anyway, I am on my way to DC because I am teaching in the 2010 Hurston/Wright Writers Week. I am really thrilled about the opportunity and this is why.
    In 2000, I won the Hurston/Wright Award for college writers. It’s important because it was really the start of my career. Before winning the prize, I had been going through a looooong dry spell. Really long. Seven years long. I had written a novel that I couldn’t publish and I had a fat notebook full of short stories that just couldn’t get any traction. I’d applied to all sorts of prizes– Even the Huston/Wright Award.
    Every year around my birthday, I would send off my entry, humming with optimism. Around Valentine’s Day I would get my rejection letter. Well, in 2000, I noticed that I was still feeling happy all the way until Februrary 20th or so. What was different this year? Well, I didn’t get that pretty Hurston/Wright envelope with my rejection enclosed. When I realised it, I got mad. “They didn’t even have the decency to send my rejection letter! Trifling.”
    Literally, a day later, I received the call saying that “Press and Curl,” an excerpt from Leaving Atlanta had won first place! The prize, $1000, was more than what I lived on in a month! And, frankly, I hadn’t won anything since I placed in a writers contest in eleventh grade.
    Shortly thereafter, good things started happening for Leaving Atlanta. I won a couple of other prizes and in May, the book deal. I’ll never forget winning the Huston/Wright.
    The winners were driven from the hotel to the awards ceremony in a stretch limo! If you know me, you will know that I was way overdressed. (If it’s worth doing, it’s worth over-doing.) The other honorees were Selly Thiam– a 19 year old prodigy, and Faith Adelele– a fabulous memoirist. With us in the limo was Gloria Naylor. I was so in awe of her that I was almost afriad to speak. She was so bored, that she didn’t feel like being spoken to! To this day, this is a funny story that Selly, Faith and I tell whenever we get together.
    Finally, it was time for my reading. I had practiced my little heart out. Just as I started on the first lines, “My mother tells lies…” There was a gasp in the crowd. A gentleman in the back had passed out and had to be rushed to the hospital.
    Thirty minutes later, I took a deep breath and read again. “My mother tells lies…” I paused to make sure that no one else was going to fall out.
    It was a beautiful night. I will be forever grateful to the Hurston/Wright Foundation for giving me that first affirmation when I needed it so bad.
    It is an honor to be asked to return. It’s going to be a great week.

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    Making One Writer’s Dream Come True

    Let me tell you about PASSION PROJECT, a really cool competition from She Writes. If you have a great non-fiction project that you’ve been working on, you can win the opportunity to work with professionals who will help you whip it into shape and get it ready for publication. The contest is open to emerging women writers. Check out the details, ladies. And join She Writes. The contest is only open to members, but it only takes five minutes to join.

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