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afterearthOn Friday I learned that the editor who agreed to acquire The Deep has since left the imprint. Another editor is willing to take a look at the manuscript, but the acquisitions board has decided to pass on my book. On Saturday I went to see After Earth (spoilers ahead); the reviews haven’t been good, but I’ve been wanting to see this film ever since the previews started last year. I’m not a huge fan of Will Smith (he’s talented but overexposed, in my opinion) and I didn’t enjoy his last collaboration with son Jaden, but After Earth intrigued me. I didn’t know M. Night Shyamalan was the director, nor did I realize that Will Smith came up with the story himself. I knew it took place long after humans had abandoned Earth but I didn’t know there was an alien menace…basically I decided to see the film because I’ve never seen a black family in space on film. Yes, there’s Uhura from Star Trek but I was never a Trekkie and I didn’t care for the recent film prequel—now that I think about it, I’m not sure I can even name any black women who got to be in space in something imagesCA8FZJ3Bother than a miniskirt. Can you? The women in After Earth (Sophie Okonedo and Zoe Kravitz) were mostly treated like eye candy, which was annoying, and the film was a bit slow and poorly written. But it was fairly original—at least it felt “new” to me because I haven’t seen a teenage black boy in a space suit fighting aliens. As Kitai, son of a gifted and revered military commander who’s injured in a crash, Jaden Smith gets to be on screen alone and much of the time he’s frightened, making mistakes, and desperate for the help his father can’t provide. We even see him cry, which is important since black boys aren’t often seen as vulnerable in our society. All boys face penalties for showing weakness, and so I liked that Kitai wasn’t stoic like his father and in the end rejects a military life despite learning he is actually stronger than he thought.

As I watched the film, I thought about my books and the kind of intervention I’m trying to make in the field of sci-fi/fantasy. My writing is rooted, in part, in an understanding of the history of misrepresentation of black people, yet when white editors/readers/reviewers engage with my work, they don’t always “get it.” And that’s ok, in a way, because I’m not writing for them. I wonder how the Smith family feels about After Earth and the reviews it has received so far. I understand why Will & Jada Pinkett-Smith founded their own production company, and while I don’t like silver platters, I appreciate their decision to develop projects for their kids to star in. If they waited on Hollywood, Jaden and Willow would be nothing more than sidekicks to white actors who may or may not have as much talent. I hope kids of color go see this film; it’s solid family fare, and who knows how long we’ll have to wait for another film that lets a slender black boy be the hero…

PS Jada, please do for black girls what Will’s doing for black boys.

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imagesBitch Magazine is running a new discussion series on their blog: “Do Girls of Color Survive Dystopia?” Asian mama Victoria Law worries that her daughter—a voracious reader with a penchant for speculative fiction—won’t see herself in the books she loves. In the comments section I left a link to our African American spec fic list of novels, and Stacy Whitman posted her list too. An anonymous teen left this comment at the end:

I’m a teenager and your daughter might like Legend by Marie Lu, which has an Asian American protagonist and love interest. It’s a dystopian retelling of Les Miserables, and it’s quite good. I read religiously and even I can’t think of a YA book with a black girl hero. When I grow up, I’ll write one.

Please do! I’m keeping my fingers crossed that The Deep, with its kick-ass black girl hero, will be out before the end of this year…

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pd-06The Next Big Thing Hop: the traveling blog that asks authors whom they consider the NEXT BIG THING, and then has them pass along the questions for those authors to answer in their blogs.

Thank you, Aker @ Futuristically Ancient for tagging me! Read hers here.

Rules: Answer ten questions about your current Work In Progress on your blog. Tag five writers / bloggers and add links to their pages so we can hop along to them next.

What is the working title of your book…

The Deep. I’ve already got the cover designed in my mind and hope to collaborate with illustrator John Jennings (that’s one of his afrofuturistic images above).

Where did the idea come from for the book?

My last novel, Ship of Souls, was set to be published in February 2012 and my editor asked me to consider writing a “Kindle Single” to help promote the book. I wrote a scene in which the female teen protagonist was nearly raped and that later became the foundation for a book told from Nyla’s point of view. I always knew that I wanted to write a trilogy—three novellas about the three friends (D, Nyla, and Keem) from Ship of Souls. Before I even finished that novel, I woke up one morning and heard someone ask, “Are you sure you’re fully human?” And I knew that The Deep would be about “the gift” Nyla inherited from the mysterious mother who abandoned her as a child.

What genre does your book fall under?

Urban fantasy.

MV5BMjIyMzU1Mjg5NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjQ2Mjc2NA@@._V1._SX214_CR0,0,214,314_Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

That’s hard—I think in a couple of years Willow Smith could play Nyla. I don’t see enough young black men on screen to be able to cast Keem or D, but I see kids on the train everyday who could fill those roles.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

When Nyla find herself at the center of a battle between good and evil, she must learn to wield the astonishing power she inherited from the mother who abandoned her as a child.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’d like to keep working with Amazon Publishing. My last two novels were published by AmazonEncore but my editor has moved to a new imprint and there’s a new children’s/YA editor here in NYC whom I haven’t met yet.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I don’t have a finished draft—I’m at 32K words and expect to wrap up by 35K. I don’t really write drafts. I take notes and write bits and pieces for a few months and then I sit down and pull everything together. I went to London for Xmas and wrote two thousand words, then I returned to Brooklyn and wrote 20K words in January. I’m hoping to finish up by the end of February. I revise, of course, but the manuscript gels fairly quickly.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I don’t know if I’ve read anything like this. I guess the mother-daughter dynamic could be compared to Parable of the TalentsThe Deep shares that complex issue of legacy.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Nyla’s a fun character—she was my favorite in Ship of Souls, though I really tried to write an appealing male protagonist. Her feistiness, the way she questions her attraction to boys, her unique history (she was raised on a military base in Germany), all made me want to feature her in another book.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

This is perhaps my most explicitly feminist novel for young readers, and I suspect some will say it’s too dark for teens. But I love to write about the way teens handle power, and I want readers to see Brooklyn in a way they’ve never seen it before.

Below are my tags of other authors:

Ekere Tallie

Neesha Meminger

Lyn Miller-Lachmann

Courrtia Newland

Sofia Quintero

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imagesI’ve written 1200 words of The Deep today and yesterday I wrote 2000 so I thought I’d take a break tonight and work on my synopses. My publisher usually asks for three of varying lengths—200 characters, 2000 characters, and 200 words for the back cover text. I’ve finished the first two and thought I’d share them here on the blog in case you’ve been wondering what I’m writing about…

Sentence Description (200 characters, including spaces):            

This urban fantasy places a Brooklyn teen at the center of a battle between good and evil. Nyla must learn to wield the astonishing power she inherited from the mother who abandoned her as a child.

Short Description (2,000 characters, including spaces):

THE DEEP plunges readers into a dangerous underground world policed by members of The League, a secret group of women and men who use their intuitive abilities to detect energy surges far below the earth’s surface. In the deep, ancient sources of malevolent energy search for fissures in the bedrock (made larger by seismic activity); “pressers” attempt to locate these leaks and “heal” the fissure, thereby preventing evil from entering the world.

Abandoned by her mother at the age of three, Nyla has grown up with a loving father and stepmother on a military base in Germany. After a traumatic assault takes place at a school dance, Nyla and her family return to the United States and take up residence in her deceased grandmother’s Brooklyn brownstone. Nyla gradually changes her outer appearance to match her inner ambivalence around femininity; despite her father’s objections, Nyla shaves off most of her hair, dyes what little’s left, and gets multiple facial and ear piercings in order to establish a new Afropunk identity.

Determined to control as much of her environment as she can, Nyla is terrified when she begins to hallucinate while walking the city streets. A man named Osiris approaches her and offers to introduce Nyla to others who have similar “gifts.” When Nyla refuses, her young friend D is kidnapped and held in the deep until Nyla agrees to let Osiris guide her below ground. There she meets Lada, the mother who abandoned her ten years ago. Furious that her daughter is being recruited by The League, Lada tries to persuade her ex-husband to take Nyla out of the city. But Nyla has decided to follow in her mother’s footsteps and her training begins at an accelerated pace when The League discovers an earthquake will soon hit Brooklyn, releasing unprecedented levels of malevolent energy into the city.

THE DEEP is the companion book to SHIP OF SOULS (2012), which was named a Top Ten Sci-Fi/Fantasy Title for Youth by Booklist.

I don’t have a contract for the book yet but I also filled out the author questionnaire they sent me for SoS. I’ve already lined up an illustrator for the book’s cover, but the movie poster that comes closest to what I have in mind is the one for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Audience? Teens (13+), all genders, African Americans, New Yorkers, Brooklynites, feminists, urban fantasy/speculative fiction fans…

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imagesI’m beginning to lose myself in this novel. This morning I woke up with an image of the cover in my mind—black with a picture of Nyla in profile: shaved head, purple tints in her faux hawk, her many facial piercings done with silver foil. I keep a notebook next to my laptop and every few hours I stop to calculate my word count so I know how much progress I’m making. My goal is to write 10K words this month. The Deep is a novella like Ship of Souls, so it won’t be much longer than 30K words. In London I wrote over 2000 words and since the new year began, I’ve written an additional 5000. This past week I’ve fallen asleep on the couch more times than I can count, waking at 4 or 5am not sure what day it is, but with a scrap of dialogue ready to be written down. I love writing and it feels good to pull a chapter together—for more than a year I’ve been taking notes and writing bits and pieces, and now I’m finally filling in the gaps. Unfortunately I’m eating WAY too much sugar—I went two days without cake and in its place ate a bag of caramels purchased for $1 at Target, and then yesterday I woke before dawn and baked cookies. I have a sugar problem. But when I’m in the middle of a writing tear, I’m disinclined to make any drastic changes to my lifestyle. I went to the doctor on Thursday and she gave me a list of foods I need to avoid; half the items on her list aren’t even in my diet but the rest certainly are—no more chocolate! No orange juice, cranberry juice, peppermint, or tomato sauce. Today I’ll go for a run since it’s supposed to be a bit warmer, and my agent has advised me to start each day with 12 men’s pushups. “Don’t worry about how long it takes you,” she said, “just keep going ’till you get to 12.” My friends and I have agreed to try to have healthier food for our weekly Downton Abbey tea—some cakes, some scones, but fruit and sugarless options as well. I can’t afford to add a pound for every thousand words I write this month!

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If you didn’t attend the 2012 A Is for Anansi conference at NYU last weekend, you missed a chanced to meet the future president of the United States. Sirah Sow (left) was one of three outstanding teens that wowed the audience on Saturday morning’s “If I Ruled the World” panel. She and her aunt also attended the post-conference brunch where a smaller group of participants shared our impressions and suggestions with the two organizers, Jaira Placide and Rashidah Ismaili. Most of us agreed that our main challenge this year was attendance. The panels were tighter, the speakers were diverse and engaging, but ultimately we were preaching to the choir—and a small choir at that. It’s possible that the lingering effects of Hurricane Sandy prevented some local people from attending, though I met one determined attendee who knew she was coming whether or not her power was restored. The US publishing industry is based in NYC, and white editors claim they’re desperate to find more black writers, yet how many of those editors took advantage of this FREE event? Did the storm prevent ALL of the major kidlit journals from covering the conference? This year four legends in the field were honored: Ashley Bryan, Pat Cummings (right, photographed by Sandra Payne), Eloise Greenfield, and William Loren Katz. Will the readers of Horn Book, School Library Journal, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly get to read about the honoring of these literary luminaries? They deserve to know about this one-of-a-kind conference yet I didn’t see any press in attendance. When my panel was over, Dr. Meena Khorana approached me and asked for a copy of my paper; Dr. Khorana is the editor of Sankofa: a Journal of African Children’s and Young Adult Literature and they plan to cover the conference—but again, that’s preaching to the choir. How do we engage those who most need to hear our message? The presidential election is over, thank goodness, and the conversation has since turned to the shifting demographics in the US and the obvious anxiety of many members of the dominant group. In class I try to explain to my students that dominance isn’t tied to numbers—under slavery, small groups of whites controlled much larger groups of blacks. So when racial minorities combine to become the statistical majority in this country, it doesn’t automatically follow that whites will lose their dominance. White supremacy is so entrenched in our institutions that it will take decades to root it out. I think what we’re going to see over the next few years is a circling of the wagons—anxious whites fearing the loss of power and privilege will retreat further into their all-white world and do whatever they can to “keep the horde at bay.” Meanwhile, people of color and their allies will have to keep moving forward, holding fast to the belief that “we shall overcome someday.” On this rainy morning I’m not feeling particularly optimistic. But it was definitely energizing to spend the weekend with so many talented writers and scholars and activists (above: Tony Medina, Nnedi Okorafor, Michelle Martin, & me). Ibi Zoboi took this great shot of our fantasy panel, and I’m hoping she will do a write-up of the entire conference on her blog (below: me, Vicky Smith, Nnedi, Stacy Whitman, and Ivan Velez, Jr.).

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…and you’ll never work a day in your life.” I first heard this years ago, back when I was an avid NBA fan. Marc Jackson told a reporter that his father had given him that advice when he was young, and it made absolute sense to me at the time. I turned 40 a couple of weeks ago, however, and I now know that loving what you do doesn’t mean that you don’t work hard—it just means that at the end of a busy day you don’t feel defeated. You DO get tired, and some days you DO dread getting out of bed. But for the most part, having a job you love means you feel the time and energy you spend are an investment in something important. I spent last weekend in Columbia, South Carolina and was impressed over and over by the enthusiasm and dedication of the librarians and educators I met. On Friday I had dinner with three black women academics (Rachelle Washington, Michelle Martin, and Dianne Johnson) and a recent grad just starting her career in communications. It was an interesting moment—Jasmine laid out her plans for work/life/family and we elders talked about the need for self-care. Rachelle runs a “Sistah Doctah retreat” at Clemson University that provides mentoring and support for black women scholars and graduate students. There have been a lot of articles online lately about the specific challenges black women face in the academy. After my mid-week migraine I had to admit that self-care has not been high on my list of priorities this semester (I just had leftover cake for breakfast). I felt guilty lounging in a hotel room last weekend (I did grade midterms for a couple of hours) but I know that if I don’t slow down, eventually I’ll crash. The semester gets going and you try to “hold on” and “push through,” but that’s not healthy. I haven’t gotten any writing done lately, either, and that just makes me mean…

On Saturday I got some books at the Robert Mills Museum and then walked over to the Richland County Public Library to meet Michelle’s graduate students. They had compiled a list of more than *fifty* questions after reading Wish and we had a wide-ranging conversation about the novel, my writing process, and the challenges of getting published. I also got to learn about their literacy projects, which include books clubs, book drives, and puppetry! The library has its own puppet theater and I melted a little when I saw all their puppets hanging on the wall. I immediately recalled the raggedy old monkey puppet my mother saved for me when she retired from teaching. I need to figure out how to be the kind of professor who gets to play with puppets now and then. Or maybe I should’ve become a librarian! The ones I met in Columbia were so energetic—especially when talking to or about their teenage patrons. The best part of my author presentation was the Q&A and the two young women who talked about their own struggles with writing. “Did your parents support your decision to become a writer?” Uh—no! Not at all. They eventually came to tolerate my writing but you can’t expect *your* passion to mean as much to other people. I often say that being around teachers is like being around family, but the difference is that the teachers and librarians I meet *now* truly value my work. Having dinner with RCPL librarians Heather, Sherry, and Jennifer was a lot fun—we talked about Game of Thrones, trauma in picture books, having immigrant parents, and (of course) the election. Sunday was a day of rest and then I spent Monday at Westwood High School—a beautiful, brand new school just north of Columbia. My librarian host, Marti Brown, is also a student of Michelle Martin so she was familiar with my work and planned an amazing visit for me with her co-librarian Cathy. How often do you show up at a public school and find hot biscuits, grits, scrambled eggs, and bacon?! I ate my fill and then gave a short talk to a nice group of teachers—as long as their day is, they still showed up early to hear about my books. Then I gave a presentation to about three hundred students in the school’s state of the art auditorium—complete with cordless mic and remote so that I was able to roam around and still advance my slides (all tech stuff was handled by members of the broadcasting club!). I told the students later that I wished the kids in Brooklyn could see Westwood High—*every* child should be able to attend a school like that. Before leaving for the airport I had a pizza lunch with the book club and heard a powerful poetry performance by Marshay, the Miss Westwood pageant-winner. They sent me off with a portable Redhawk blanket that kept me warm on the chilly flight home…one of my best school visits ever.

It was lovely to be spoiled like that but it was also good to come home. Getting out of NYC wasn’t easy—we’re still recovering from “Superstorm Sandy” and it was hard to hail a cab since most of them were taken and/or were in line waiting for gas. I got gouged by the cabbie (and lectured on why I should have kids) but I made it to the airport on time and even made my connecting flight despite a one-hour delay leaving JFK. I stepped off the plane in Columbia and looked up at a clear, blue sky—there was sunshine and a strong breeze—and I felt a mixture of relief and guilt. Everyone I met asked how I had weathered the storm and I shared how blessed I felt not to have experienced any flooding or power loss. So many New Yorkers are still homeless, still without power and heat—and it’s FREEZING right now. We had a snowstorm yesterday and there are plenty of empty seats in my classroom because my students are struggling to recover from the storms. I woke up on Monday morning and there was no hot water in the hotel; I immediately went on Facebook and typed up a complaint to post on my feed and then had a reality check. This week has been rather overwhelming but I don’t have the additional challenges faced by those who live along the coast. I have heat, power, internet access, and food. I’m busy, but I’m also blessed. Trying to focus on that fact as I do what I can for those in need.

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