I’m writing this post after having a really amazing conversation that I’ll post more about soon! But until then, I’m thinking a lot about the book that I’m finishing, which has undergone several drafts over the course of many years. That’s unusual for me, and I think it’s a process that deserves some thought.
My upper middle grade novel is near and dear to my heart. It’s a magical girls narrative, and it’s my first #ownvoices project. I first conceived of the basic thread of the idea for the book when I was about the same age as my characters. It was sixth grade, and I couldn’t have been more proud that, finally, I’d finished writing something that I could call a book, complete with fancy chapter title pages in my beat-up composition notebook.
Fast-forward to my second or third semester of college, when I was digging around in my old journals at my parents’ house. I came across the composition notebook and reread what I had written years before. I giggled and winced all the way through my “juvenalia,” but then thought: most of this is predictably bad, but the central idea might actually be something I can use. So I rewrote it, most of the story unrecognizable from what it had been when I was a kid, and I showed the first chapter to my mentor at the public library, who at that time was the sole YA librarian on staff.
“Melissa, you know I think you’re wonderful. But if you’re going to write YA, you’ve got to go back to reading YA.” At 19, I was a little crushed, and also confused. What did she mean? Hadn’t I devoured almost her entire YA section from the time I was a tween until I’d started college? Could the adult literature I’d been reading as an undergraduate English major changed my perspective so very much? I tucked the second version of the book away, feeling a mixture of puzzlement and defeat.
I looked at that draft again during my MFA program. I’ll be honest with you: at that point, I wasn’t a very good writer. There’s a great video excerpted from an interview with Ira Glass that I’ll include below; he talks about how creative people have good “taste” for art all along, but when they start out, their own creative work never lives up to their taste. His solution is to “do a lot of work,” produce as much and as regularly as possible until the work starts to move up towards the level of the artist’s taste. And at that point, I hadn’t done enough work. And I wouldn’t do that work during my MFA program, or when I moved on to start my PhD program.
My now critique partner and childhood friend Eva and I shared a phone call in 2015 where we realized it had been a decade since we’d left high school with the intention of becoming writers, and that dream had slipped away from us both without our realizing it, beyond a growing sense of inexplicable misery that we now confessed to one another. We snapped each other out of it and started swapping work; the following summer, I finished rewriting a new version of that book.
The same sense of victory, of “I did it! I wrote a book!” revisited me at this time, and it was the absolutely necessary fuel I needed to keep writing, the drive that would lead me to finishing my next book. In the meantime, I was learning the industry and the roads to publication, so I prematurely sent a couple of queries out and of course was rejected.
I say “of course” because that book, the book that had its seed in my childhood, an original idea that was now a good 15 or so years behind me, still wasn’t ready for readers. I knew from Eva’s response to it, and from my other critique partner Sara’s response when she read it. They loved the idea, but the book itself wasn’t there yet. They were kind and supportive, as they always are, but their feedback told me that there were many elements that needed work: the voices of the characters, the diction, the backstory, all of it wasn’t where it needed to be yet.
I put the book away again. I wrote my first novel for adults, as I mentioned. Then I wrote a novella, a fun little project written under such low stakes that I could really flex the muscles of my own narrative style and learn a certain kind of economy with story. Then a speculative short story collection, which I’ve been querying since May and which I am very proud of; I’ve had a couple of manuscript requests on that one, but no offers as of yet.
I’ve grown extremely quickly in the past few years, in no small part due to the support of Sara and Eva, as well as the intense work ethic we’ve all committed to. We’ve “done a lot of work,” as Ira Glass instructs. But the other major thing that happened, and I’ve written about this before, is that I changed career paths. I left a very precarious, toxic trajectory for the road I’m on now, which is leading me towards me becoming a librarian (see my previous post if you want to know details).
And because I had started the transition into a healthier career, because I finally had the mental and emotional energy, as well as the time, I started to do what my old mentor and now critique partners had been encouraging me to do: I spent a good part of this year immersed in children’s and young adult literature. I didn’t do this in any academic sense, as I had in graduate school, but plunged into the joy of reading for the sake of reading. I got friends and new colleagues at my library to recommend titles to me; I browsed bookstores and online catalogues; I revisited authors I knew and loved from long ago and read many new wonderful voices who are just now emerging on the shelves. I devoured story after story, and I learned as I went along.
This summer, in the midst of all that reading, I realized it was time to go back to my book. All of the problems I’d been having seemed to vanish as I wrote what my critique partners have told me is a whole new book, built on the bones of the versions that came before it, with a voice and a story that work together in the way I’ve always meant them to.
I’m querying that book this October. I’m doing final revisions now, gathering those last comments from beta-readers, gearing up for my intensive proofreading process that I polish off every project with. I know that the book is ready for eyes beyond those of the dear and generous friends that have been guiding me up until this point.
I began by stating that this book is special to me, in no small part because of that gestation period of twenty years. But there are other reasons this manuscript feels different. Magical girl narratives have been a subgenre that I’ve returned to again and again in my life, for inspiration, for wisdom, for help surviving girlhood and keeping my hope alive during womanhood. Sailor Moon dazzled me in childhood and taught me how true friendship mattered above all else; when I was a teen, Lynne Ewing’s Daughters of the Moon struck a chord of passion and energy in my heart; Cardcaptor Sakura helped me cope with the toughest parts of graduate school; Mildred Louis’s Agents of the Realm has captured my magical girl heart all over again as I read it now.
There is a great potential in a story where girls work together, using magic in hidden but extremely powerful ways. I think that has a lot to do with letting girls know that there’s magic in collaborating, in believing in each other and standing up for one another. Because when you learn to stand up for another girl, you’re also learning to stand up for yourself. Magical girls have gotten some pushback over the years: Why is Sailor Moon’s magic hidden in her makeup? Isn’t that dated? Isn’t it regressive, possibly oppressive? But remember, there’s a metaphor in there: no one is going to suspect that the girl with the makeup case is going to be a hero, largely because of that makeup case; but more than that, no one expects a girl to be a hero. And what better way to say, “Oh yeah? Watch me be a hero!” than to whip out a lipstick, or in the case of my own book, a piece of jewelry, and to shine brighter than they told you that you could ever dream of doing?
Writing this book was also hard because, as I’ve said, it’s #ownvoices, and my backstory is a little complicated. All of my grandparents came here from different places: my mother’s mother from Puerto Rico; her father from Italy by way of Panama, where he was raised; my father’s mother from Colombia; his father also from Puerto Rico. I’m a bit of a mutt, as I’ve always said with pride! And I read as white, so it’s important for me that I not take up the space of those voices that come from where I’m from but who have to face racism and colorism as well as the bigotry aimed at our Latinx ethnicity. My character is half Puerto Rican, like me, but she’s also from a different generation; on top of that, I’m unusual because my mother had me in her 40s and her mother had her in her 40s, so my abuelita was actually born in Puerto Rico in 1902. Most people don’t have parents and grandparents who are so much older, as I did, and so my family stories and what I remember hearing have come from further back in time than many of my peers’ family stories.
I did what any writer is told to do: I wrote what I know. I made my main character a little bit me and a little bit what my own children might be. I made her mother a combination of myself and my mother, her grandmother a combination of my mother and my grandmothers; in the end, her family is like mine and her experience is like mine, and I hope it reaches the people who need to read it most. I hope that readers enjoy the story, that it lands in their hands soon, and that it remains on their shelves, cherished for days to come.
This was a longer post than usual! Thanks for sticking with me. I’d love to hear your stories of revision, of the projects that kept haunting you over the years, if you’d like to share them in the comments.
Until next time, I wish you the time you need for the writing you’re meant to do,