Monday, March 11, 2013

Interview with Tracey Baptiste

Over the weekend we had lovely Spring-ish weather in Philly. I was out running both days which always puts me in a good mood. I also celebrated my birthday with family. We went to Maggiano's and ate waaay too much food. I still have a huge chunk of the richest chocolate cake I've ever tasted in the refrigerator.

Today, before I finish off the rest of the cake, I'm posting my recent interview with Tracey Baptiste. About two years ago, I began following Tracey's blog, Knitting with Pencils, after reading her YA novel, Angel's Grace, a tender coming-of-age story set in Trinidad that was named one of the 100 best books for reading and sharing by NYC librarians.

My interview with Tracey is the first in a new 'Publishing Perspectives' series in which I'll be interviewing people on both sides of the publishing fence, i.e., both the people who work in publishing and the writers working toward publication. I've always found it fascinating to hear the stories of people who have been in the trenches of publishing so to speak. A big thanks to Tracey for kindly agreeing to this interview.

You were recently offered representation by Marie Lamba from Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency. Congratulations! You must have written a great query letter. Can you share with readers a few tips for writing a strong query letter?

Queries have to capture the essence of your story. Where people go wrong is trying to tell their entire backstory. Agents are busy. All they want to know is "why should I take a look at this book?" The trick is this: a one paragraph intro that tells the agent that you are seeking representation for a book. Follow this with one paragraph that summarizes your book and captures its spirit. Think of it as the back cover copy. End with a one paragraph summary of your background as pertains to the writing of this particular book. That's it. Any more than that will work against you.

If you've written a good query and a good book, 50-75% of agents should respond, assuming you've done your research and are submitting to the right ones for your work. I have been doing this for a while, so I can usually write a query in a couple of hours, with tweaking for a few days. But when I started, it would take a month sometimes to find the right words.

Let's talk about your unpublished novel. You keep dropping all of these tantalizing hints on your blog, like "the book takes place nearly a hundred years ago" and it "involves jumbies and Caribbean spirits". Can you give us a little taste of what the book is about?

I'll do you one better. This is part of the query I used to hook Marie:

This story takes a paranormal spin on the Haitian folktake, “The Magic Orange Tree.” It is set on a tropical island, and is filled with creatures from the bedtime stories that I grew up listening to on the island of Trinidad. It introduces a new creature to intrigue fans of vampires, zombies, and fae: the jumbie—a malevolent spirit with the power to maim, transform, or even consume human victims.

That was my opening paragraph. The rest describes the protagonist, 10 year old Corinne, who unwittingly draws a jumbie out of the forest, and who finds herself the central figure in the jumbie’s attempts to get revenge on the people of the island.

This is also my first attempt at a Middle Grade novel, and one that’s so creepy. Think Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. But I wanted something that captured the creepiness of those soucouyant stories my family would tell me before bed when I was a child.

You started writing the novel ten years ago and received many rejection letters from agents who read the manuscript. Most writers would have given up and moved onto another project. What drove you to hang in there with this particular novel?

This is a long story. Ready? I conceived of the story ten years ago, and I started writing it around the time my first novel was published (2005). I had a hard time getting it to work, so I put it away and went on to write two more novels (both terrible), and seven non-fiction books. Somewhere in there, I also had a second child.

About six years ago, a friend who is also an editor told me I needed to make it more “epic,” but I couldn’t figure out how. I put it away again for about three years. Then I worked on it fairly steadily for a year. I sent it to my agent, she liked it, and sent it out on submission, but it was rejected three times. She decided not to send it out again. This was when she and I parted ways. I worked on it for a few more months and started sending it out to agents. A few were interested, and asked for changes, but ultimately no one bit. Finally last summer I made a “last list” of agents to send to, and Marie loved it.

Here are the stats:

Editors queried: 3
Agents queried: 18
Agent requests for partials: 8
Agent requests for fulls: 4
Offers: 1

(Once I signed with Marie, I notified the other agents that I was no longer in the market for representation.) I really believed in this story, not because I worked so hard on it, but because it represents me and my culture in a very real way. I wanted a heroine that my children could look up to, and recognize themselves in.

I'm always curious about where the idea for a book came from. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

“The Magic Orange Tree” was one story in an anthology called Best-Loved Folktales of the World that I picked up when I was in college, and that I still have in the bookshelf in my office. I like to keep it close. It's basically a Cinderella story, and I happen to love Cinderella stories, so I'm not surprised that this one stuck with me. It had everything I liked: magic, a clever girl, an island setting, a nasty villain.

I remember you were having trouble with your villain, both her name and characterization. What do you think it is about villains that makes them so hard to write?

I had never written a villain before! What I found out was that villains need to be as strong as the protagonists. They have to be just as complicated, and clever, and should get equal weight in a scene. Fortunately I finally came up with a name that suits her. (Phew!) But that only happened about a month ago. So sometimes I still slip and write her original name when I’m revising parts of the book. It takes some getting used to. (Even my husband hasn't gotten used to the new name, and I’m not so sure he likes it.)

You grew up in Trinidad and moved to Brooklyn at age fifteen. How does your upbringing and background influence your writing?

The influence is obvious in this story: the jumbies, the girl on the island, but it’s also very present in my first novel, Angel’s Grace, which takes place entirely in Trinidad over a summer vacation. I suppose I could write more American stories. I have lived here longer than I lived in Trinidad. But you can take the girl out of the island…

The truth is, I really want to write stories that feature the Caribbean and the creatures I grew up hearing about. I am writing for the kid that I was (and still am), and for my kids too, so they don’t miss out on their culture. My daughter is very interested in soucouyant stories, and there aren't many books that feature them. Not many that are really good, anyway. This is as much for her as it is for me. I don’t worry about where that puts me in the U.S. literary scene. Assuming the books are ever sold, I’ll let someone in marketing worry about it.

Your first children's novel, Angel's Grace, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2005. What is the one thing you wish you'd done differently as a first-time author?

I was so terrified and shell-shocked throughout that process that I’m not sure what I did right or wrong. One thing that my editor told me was that I took her notes well, and did great revisions. But one thing I didn't do was ask a lot of questions. Like, there were supposed to be illustrations in Angel’s Grace. We did the illustrations (I have them in an ARC) but they never made it into the final copy. I have no idea why.

You've worked at big publishing houses like Scholastic and Chelsea House Publishing. From your insider's perspective, what would you say to children's/YA writers trying to work with these publishers?

I've freelanced for both of these publishing houses along with a few others. But freelance writing for a house is quite different from being an author that they seek out. In one you’re an employee who gives them exactly what they ask for. In the other, you’re “the talent.” But my advice for working anywhere in publishing is this: be polite. Publishing is a very small world, and word gets around fast.

You're a freelance writer, entrepreneur, mom, and knitter. And you have a full-time job. How do you fit writing into your busy life?

Now that I’m back to a regular full-time job, finding writing time is harder, but I love it, so I squeeze it in whenever I can. I don’t have a particular day or time that I regularly write. But if I’m not actively writing, you can bet I’m thinking about it.

You're a NaNoWriMo regular and it seems to work for you. So many writers find that challenge impossible to do. What advice do you have for anyone attempting to make NaNoWriMo work for them?

NaNoWriMo is like stream of consciousness novelling for me. It’s very freeing to write without worrying about what I’m writing or what someone will think of it. And even though a lot of what I do write during NaNoWriMo isn't usable, an amazing percentage of it is! Especially when I let it sit there for a few months before I look at it again. My advice is to just get as much of a story out of you as you can, and then not look at it for a long, long time. When you finally do, it will surprise you.

You are a cancer survivor and you've blogged openly about your cancer journey. I never told you before how much I admire you for your courage and strength and how personally encouraged I was by your blogs. What would you say to struggling writers out there who are also dealing with illness?

Writing about cancer was a tough choice. I come from a family who likes to keep their business to themselves. But as a writer, I felt compelled to communicate. I didn't start writing about the cancer though until I was almost finished with treatments. By the time everyone (including some of my friends and family) had heard about it, I had already been in treatment for a year, and had only a few months of chemo left. Writing about it during the hardest part of the treatments would have been too difficult and raw.

What I learned about writing while dealing with illness is that if you love it, being sick is probably not going to prevent you from doing it. I wrote query letters and jotted down story ideas while hooked up to chemo machines. I knew being sick wasn't going to be my life. My life was that other thing I did, where I wrote all the time.

Tracey Baptiste was born in the Caribbean island of Trinidad and moved to Brooklyn, New York, when she was fifteen. She is a former elementary school teacher who left teaching to work for an educational publisher, and then left educational publishing to work for herself. She is the author of a critically acclaimed young adult novel, Angel's Grace, and 7 non-fiction Middle Grade books including biographies of Madeleine L'Engele, Jerry Spinelli, and Stephenie Meyer. She lives with her husband and two children in Englewood, New Jersey, where she is honing her latest middle grade novel for publication. She is currently represented by Marie Lamba from Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency. You can follow her on Twitter at @TraceyBaptiste.

Summer Edward is a Children's Literature and Publishing Consultant. She holds an M.S.Ed. degree in Reading, Writing, Literacy from the University of Pennsylvania and is the recipient of a Highlights Foundation Scholarship for promising children's writers and the School of the Free Mind's inaugural Way of the Book Honor Award given to artist-authors demonstrating long and sincere commitment to changing the world through children's books. Learn more about her here .



Thanks so much for interviewing me, Summer!

Summer Dula Edward, RYT 200, M.S.Ed.

You're most welcome Tracey. Now I'm looking forward to your book!

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