I’m thinking back on my own career as I get ready to take this trip. I’m considering all the ways that I learned the ropes of the publishing business and how this organization was part of that journey. No organization can provide you with everything, but my membership with SCBWI was a first important step for me. It was my declaration, I think, that I was a writer. (more…)
Archive for the ‘writing advice’ Category
My mother and my aunts all worked at the same place when I was little. It was an electronics factory in Queens. My mother worked in shipping, where she packed Styrofoam bricks with transistors. Tía Isa branded the little numbers on the smallest ones, checking her work with a powerful magnifying glass. Tía Gera tested the voltage all day long.
In the end, they worked until retirement, and in all that time – 30 years, all told – none of them ever asked for a raise. Instead, they pooled their money, covered one another in a pinch, and worked financial magic so that I don’t remember a single day of being hungry.
All to say that, early on, I lived a life where money couldn’t possibly be used as the measure of our value or we would have surely lost our minds, or at very least our dignity. Instead, our family measured our worth by how well we made do with the resources we had available.
It’s all admirable, and I’m grateful for all my family did for me.
But the truth is that some of those attitudes about money and self worth have followed me into publishing – and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Fast forward. Unlike my mother, I do not test, brand or pack transistors. In fact, I have a job that many people would kill for. But here is the ingrained script that runs through my head whenever the question of money enters the picture.
Don’t complain. You’re not starving, after all. Be grateful for what people offer because you are lucky to do this work. Be glad you have readers at all. It’s tacky to talk about money – hush. Don’t you dare focus on money, which is meaningless; focus on “what’s really important” – the kids.
And that, my friends, is how women – especially those from marginalized backgrounds – can really get shafted in the publishing business.
For the record, I am intensely grateful that I have the privilege of writing books for young people, and that my books name the experience of immigrants and bicultural kids at a time when Latinx families are essentially under siege in the media. It’s important work, noble work, and fulfilling. I’m grateful that my life is filled with other creative authors and illustrators whose books are groundbreaking. I am grateful for every last beautiful moment this career has offered me.
But here is what is harder to say. I have worked like a mule to make a space for myself in this field. I’m good at what I do. I should be paid fairly and professionally in both my advances and in my fees for conferences and school visits.
Even as I type this, I feel sick. I worry immediately that this will make me sound greedy.
Interestingly, in talking recently with many of my female friends in publishing, I find that they struggle with a similar unease, even those who started out in middle class or more advantaged families. (See earlier posts on the #kidlitwomen site.) But for many of my friends who are women of color, the unease is a more pointed, especially early on in our careers. Of course there will be the superstars who are offered top dollar right out of the gate (and more power to them.) But for the rest, whose careers unfold more traditionally, the worry is real as time goes on. Will we make a professional, living wage? Should we close our eyes and be happy that we get to do this at all?
I can’t help but wonder if our male counterparts who have reached the same career level ever feel guilty for advocating for their finances in this way. My guess is no, not really.
Let’s pivot for a second and take on the recent movie flap about Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg. You may remember the jaw-dropping revelations that she was paid $80 a day to reshoot scenes for All the Money in the World while he got paid over $ 1 million to do the same. The real kick in the face? They were represented by the same firm.
Why do I bring this up? Because money in publishing is a very opaque thing, and opacity doesn’t work to our advantage. In all the secrecy and conditional factors of our business, it’s easy for you to get low-balled and underpaid, just like Michelle Williams- and you’d never know it. It might be as an advance for a male colleague that’s much higher than yours or it might be that someone has been paid more to speak on the very same panel. Maybe the school has paid far more for a school visit or granted first-class travel accommodations to someone else – while you’re happily still booking coach.
I wish these scenarios were just in my head, but they’re not. Every one of these things has happened to me, and I’ve been served up lots of rationalizations in response – none of which took away the sting of feeling that I’d been had.
Recently a dear friend accidentally confessed that he and his writing partner had each made a substantially bigger advance on their novel than I had on mine. Was it sexist? After all, I have male friends who earn smaller advances than I do. Enter the murkiness.
We know advances have to do with your name recognition and with how badly your editor loves your project and what power they have at their publishing house to acquire it. Your advance has to do with your former sales figures and awards, with the “hotness” of the book’s topic – and of course, if you’re an author of color, if the marketing department believes they can sell your work in the mainstream. Don’t forget the negotiation skills of your agent and the ability of the publisher to shell over big bucks, too.
See the trouble? Negotiations are tricky. Any of those things could have been the reason I was paid less. Still, you can’t ignore the fact that bias can be folded into each and every one of those factors. And so, suspicion enters the game.
What’s the answer? I think we have to start truly assessing where we are in our careers and then putting a fair price on it. This means frank conversations with your agents, of course. But it also means that we stop worrying about asking for too much money. In the end, maybe your agent won’t get the advance you’re hoping for, but you absolutely don’t stand a chance if you don’t ask with conviction.
Conferences and school visits are other revenue sources and there’s a lot of hand-wringing that goes on about those two subjects, too. Early in my career, I had no idea what to charge, aka, I had no idea how to value myself as a professional author. I mean, what did I have to offer? Here I owe a huge debt to my friends Monica Brown and Guadalupe Garcia McCall, comadres with some chops. They had to remind me repeatedly to price myself fairly, especially as I started to publish more. They very generously shared their own fees so that I could gauge where I wanted to set mine. I am ashamed to tell you, even now, how long I resisted their advice and how many times I second-guessed my fees, especially when it was for schools. But eventually, I learned the hard way. On more than one occasion, I did school visits for a price determined by me, only to find out months or years later, that another author had been paid much more. Who was to blame? Me.
So here are a couple of strategies – simple ways to protect ourselves from our own internalized thinking (“I’m not worth that amount. I have nothing important to say.) and from those who may operate under their own faulty assumptions that we are not the main “breadwinners” and therefore do not need as much money as one of our male colleagues.
One: ask about money without shame. The fact is that panels can operate on the airline model. Every seat had a different price, just depending. The person to the right of you got paid half what you did. The person to the left of you got paid three times as much. You’re all experts and all equal on the stage, but your wallets tell another story.
I turned to Phil Bildner, for some advice since he manages my bookings at the Author Village. Phil’s number one question on behalf of his clients, male and female, is whether all panelists are being paid the same. “Why not ask? It’s a fair question,” he says.
Do that. Whether you’re represented by someone or whether you’re fielding your own requests. Tape the script to your computer and to your forehead. “Thank you for the invitation. Is everyone on the panel being paid the same?” It should be the question you ask right after, “Just to verify, this is not an all-male panel? There will be people of color on this panel, too?”
And I say, why stop there? Before you offer up what your fee is to visit a school, ask plainly what the school or panel organizers have paid presenters in the past. It is a fair question, no matter how squeamish it makes you.
Does this mean you will never do anything for free? Is everything about the buck? Do you have to turn your back on your sense of community and generosity?
Not at all. First of all, the visits sponsored by your publisher for publicity and marketing will not earn you a dime, at least not directly. Beyond that, you can satisfy any need you have for service as you see fit.
For now, here’s what I’m trying out because volunteerism is an important part of how I want to empower Latinx communities. I’ve opted to pick two organizations a year for a free author visit. These are typically in my own state and are organizations that are very closely aligned with my interest in girls, culture, and family. They have to ask me in writing, and they have to tell me about their organization and their finances. I look at their mission and if they truly have no other means to bring me. If it’s a match and if my schedule is open, I’m in.
The solution for you might be different. Maybe you don’t do anything for free, period. Fine. You’ll find the right balance.
What matters here is that you decide what your time is worth and what you’re worth. You decide what to give away, if anything at all. It is okay to love what you do and to be paid well to do it. It’s time for clarity, sisters, and a time for all of us to learn a new language: Self love and money.
It’s International Women’s Day this Thursday, March 8, 2018.
We’re celebrating Women’s History month with 31 days of posts focused on improving the climate for social and gender equality in children’s and teens industry. Join in the conversation on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/kidlitwomen or Twitter #kidlitwomen
Please note the comment policy for #kidlitwomen:
The #KidLitWomen project is a solutions-oriented forum, focused on improving the climate for gender equality in the children’s and teen literature industry. While high emotions are a natural part of this ongoing dialogue, the hope is that we can always return to a spirit of problem-solving and remain a celebration of the many women who make up such a large portion of this community. Discussion should be respectful, constructive, and tightly related to our goal. We reserve the right to delete comments that are abusive, inappropriate and/or fall outside the scope of this initiative.
I found a picture of myself at my first-ever book launch. Back in 2008, my first middle grade novel, Milagros: Girl from Away, was published by Henry Holt. To celebrate, Narnia Bookstore (which would later become bbgb books in Carytown) hosted my friends and family in the shop. “If I die tomorrow,” I told my husband, “know that I was happy, and that I did what I always dreamed I would.”
Well, I’m not dead and I’m glad because there are still things left to do and books left to write. And while that sentiment still holds true, I look back and realize it was euphoria talking. But that’s the beauty of a first book, I suppose. I wrote Milagros in the beautiful bubble called The First Novel – that wonderful space where no one was waiting for a manuscript, where there were no expectations, no real notion of what reviews meant, and where the process of writing a manuscript all the way to the end was my crowning accomplishment. It was all wonder and hope.
The other thing I know is that I mostly wrote with no idea of what I was doing, which is maybe exactly the wild abandon we need, especially early in our careers. If we get bound up in our heads and in the business landscape of publishing, I think we risk losing the book that is coming from our heart. In my case, I had taught creative writing, but I hadn’t ever written a children’s book. I drew from the first stories I ever heard at my grandmother’s knee, and from the style of stories I loved to read as a girl – magical adventures. To my surprise, what emerged was a story about stingrays, pirates, healers and mothers –and the sad truth of what it means to endure a migration.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Milagros these days. For one thing, I’m at work once again on a middle grade novel, this time for Candlewick. And nine years later, I know a lot more about what to worry about in birthing a book. Not that it makes things easier. Actually it’s the opposite. On the plus side, I’m probably better at craft. I can ask myself harder questions than I once did about the characters and how relatable they are to a young reader in 2017. I know enough to give long and compassionate thought to presenting a thorny and sad issue to someone who is ten years old. I worry the details about whether I’ve written with sensitivity to all the people represented. I think about vocabulary and spaces for humor and what role to give adults in this novel so that they are not saviors but not absentees, either. I read and reread with an eye to the page turn and tension.
But it’s what I’ve learned on the publishing side that can give me the real angst, mostly because I can’t really control any of it and because it’s rooted in vanity. My late night questions swirl. How will this compare to my other books? Will anyone review it? Will they give it a star or simply a polite nod? Will copies even sell? Will this win an award, get on such-and-such list? Or will it die a quiet death? None of those worries ever occurred to me when I wrote Milagros. I tell you, it was bliss.
With all that said, though, it’s also true that I’m not only thinking about Milagros with nostalgia. What’s also drawing me is that so much of our news has been truly disturbing lately, particularly as it relates to the idea of who “belongs,” which is, of course, one of the big threads of that story. Travel bans, threats of deportations, desecration of cemeteries, attacks and murders on people who are told to “go back to where they belong.” I can’t keep it at arm’s length or read about it coolly in the newspaper as if it doesn’t affect me. Because it does. In my daily life, dear friends and acquaintances confess their fears, their contingency plans, their sense of not knowing where to turn or whom to trust, and worst of all, their worries about their children.
Writing a book sometimes feels like the biggest thing you can achieve. But it can also feel like a small thing in the face of so much misunderstanding and hate. That’s especially true of a first book where, unsure, you once cut your teeth. That’s how it has been for me with Milagros, anyway.
All these years later, and at a time of so much division and suspicion, I find myself struggling to hold on to the wonder that marked the book’s first steps into the world. Stubbornly, I’m still hoping that stories – the act of remembering, the act of sharing, the act of connecting – help us find a way to love each other despite it all.
Also about migration, The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind. (Young Adult)
In between promotion travel for Burn Baby Burn, I’m turning my attention to writing my next projects with Candlewick. I have an anthology story due soon, and a middle grade manuscript due in December.
I have friends who have mastered the art of airplane and hotel room writing. Some even write for as little as six minutes before going off to jobs in offices every day. But writing on the run has always been a struggle for me. I need a lot of quiet to sink deeply enough inside my imagination to connect with my characters, especially at the beginning.
So, I was cleaning up my computer desktop – which is what I do when when I’m trying to avoid something unpleasant, like battling my writing insecurities. The process of beginning never seems to get easier, even after all this time. (The only thing worse is writing endings, but more on THAT another day.) I still spend weeks circling like a vulture above the story. I can see the characters vaguely. I can see their neighborhood, their school, the general shape of their lives, but I can’t quite zero in on where to start. I can be caught like this for a long while, writing and rewriting the first 30 pages as I flesh out the book’s world, looking under every rock for the heart of my main character.
I bring this up because I stumbled upon hard evidence of why I should just embrace this wandering and stop worrying. Right there on my desktop was a file that contained the draft of how I had originally planned to start Burn Baby Burn. Back then, I decided I would open in the winter of 1977, on the day that news outlets were reporting about the suicide of Freddie Printze. Here it is as a pdf, if you’re interested. ORIGINAL BEGINNING OF BURN BABY BURN
I remember how cold it was that year in New York – almost as extreme as the summer heat that would follow. But what I was really after was the emotional window of Freddie Printze’s death. Who didn’t watch Chico and the Man? I loved that Latin God and all the ways his show spoke to me, wrapping its comments about racism in humor. Here was this good looking Puerto Rican-playing-a-Mexican, in tight jeans and puppy dog eyes. I was in love. News of his suicide left me stunned – and his death somehow became entwined in my mind with the long unraveling of the city that year. Something in the loss of a cultural hero brought me to the story of New York City in 1977. It reminded me that every piece of innocence and hope we had was at risk that year.
So what made me change my mind and abandon that opening? I’d love to claim that it was my own fantastic sense of storytelling, but really it was my editor, Kate Fletcher. To her credit, she politely stepped over my original beginning for months until we were very late into our editorial process. Finally, she pointed out the obvious. So much was going on in the novel that maybe I needed to narrow the timeframe a bit to keep the focus. Spring to summer seemed about right.
Kate. This is her gift. She knows just when to offer a suggestion so that I can hear it.
Had she insisted on this change earlier, who knows what I would have said? Likely, I would have fought her because Freddie Printze’s death was my way inside my own memories, and those memories are what gave me the courage to sink into research and the unfamiliar hard work of writing historical fiction.
I was reminded yet again that beginnings almost always change substantially once you’re “finished” writing. They are not sacred – except for those fragile, early days when they are what give us permission to reach inside ourselves.
So, where am I on my next novel? At the beginning. Or, so I think.
Just for you: You might like this master class CD about writing beginnings with Richard Peck.