Claudette Colvin – unsung Heroine of Black America –

Almost everyone has heard of Rosa Parks. The name Claudette Colvin remains almost unknown, except by inhabitants of the King Hill neighborhood of Montgomery, Alabama. Go there and say her name and residents will proudly tell you, “she was the first.”

In 1955, Claudette was a fifteen-year-old “A” student at Montgomery’s Booker T Washington High School. She was full of plans and dreams, and once told her class she intended to be president of the United States one day. During Negro History Week, the second week in February, she felt inspired by stories of strong black women like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. She and her class also discussed the injustices they personally experienced under Jim Crow laws. Things like not being able to sit at a lunch counter and eat, or try on clothes or shoes in stores. They had to draw an outline of their feet on paper and take that into the store to compare with the shoes in the shop.

They also had to stay in the colored section of the city buses and be prepared to give up their seats to white passengers at any time.

On March 2, 1955, she rode a city bus home from school. She was seated in the front of the black section. When a group of white passengers boarded the crowded bus, Claudette and several other black riders were told to leave their seats. The others, adult passengers, complied. Claudette refused to leave her seat, saying, “I paid my fare. It’s my constitutional right to sit here as much as that white lady.”

She told people later she felt like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman held her down, not letting her leave her seat. After her arrest, the terrified but resolute teenager continued her challenge of the segregationist bus law. In court, she became the first black person arrested for violating the bus laws to plead “not guilty”.

Her lawyer thought hers would make a good test case for ending bus segregation. The local black establishment tried to rally nationwide support for her. However, just as her case began to catch national attention, word spread that she had become pregnant. The largely male hierarchy of the NAACP worried that a teenaged unwed mother from the wrong side of town presented an inappropriate symbol.

There was concern that the middle class would not follow a girl from King Hill, a “sepia” neighborhood that many people looked down on. In his Pulitzer prize-winning account of the civil rights years, Parting The Waters, Taylor Branch wrote: “Even if Montgomery Negroes were willing to rally behind an unwed, pregnant teenager – which they were not – her circumstances would make her an extremely vulnerable standard bearer.”

Claudette’s first son, Raymond, was born early in 1956. By that time, Rosa Parks, a long-standing political activist and feminist, was the NAACPs chosen test case. Parks was the secretary of the NAACP, a well-known and respected adult with the right hair and the right look. She could shake hands and attend banquets. In the meantime, teenaged Claudette was branded a troublemaker.

Later, Claudette explained that events that engulfed her made her “…aware of how the world is and how the white establishment plays black people against each other.”

Although she received a scholarship to Alabama State, university authorities were unhappy having a “troublemaker” on campus. She could not find work. As soon as white people found out what she had done, they refused to hire her. She would change her name and leave her own son with her mother so she could babysit for white people who hated her. As soon as her employers found out the truth, they fired her.

In 1958, this bright student dropped out of school and left Montgomery for New York. Eventually she got a job as a nurse’s aide in a Manhattan nursing home. There she had a second son, Randy.

Her two boys took wildly divergent paths. Like many African-American men, Raymond, joined the US army. Like all too many, he became involved in drugs and died young. Randy worked hard, following his mother’s legacy as an excellent student. As an adult, he moved to Atlanta, where he now works as an accountant. Claudette continued working at the nursing home until she retired in 2004 and moved to Detroit.

While her role in the fight to end segregation may not be widely recognized, her former attorney said, “Claudette gave all of us moral courage. If she had not done what she did, I am not sure that we would have been able to mount the support for Mrs. Parks.”

One thing Claudette continues to regret is never having the opportunity tell her story to children. As a historian noted, “the real reality of the [civil rights] movement was often young people.” Now the grandmother of five, Claudette understands the power of inspiration and would have liked the chance to inspire others. She understands why the NAACP never called on her to speak at formal gatherings and fundraisers, but wishes she had been called on to talk to children like herself at schools or churches.

She has long held onto the memory of what her minister told her the night of her arrest:

I’m so proud of you. Everyone prays for freedom. We’ve all been praying and praying. But you’re different—you want your answer the next morning. And I think you just brought the revolution to Montgomery.

Bibliography –

https://www.biography.com/people/claudette-colvin-11378
https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2000/dec/16/weekend7.weekend12
https://www.democracynow.org/2013/3/29/the_other_rosa_parks_now_73

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose, published 2010

Posted in blacklivesmatter, Courage, Heroine | Tagged | Leave a comment

KidLitNation Webinar on 1-31-18

Kid Lit Nation (http://kidlitnation.com/) is hosting a webinar on 1-31-18 featuring debut picture book author Baptiste Paul

and illustrator Jacqueline Alcantara. 

For more detailed information about the event, click this link – KIdLitNation Webinar

You can register for the webinar via this link: https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_exnq2R34Q1mdvJ4lBsqALw

Posted in #weneeddiversebooks, Conference, diversity, ownvoices, SCBWI | Tagged | Comments Off on KidLitNation Webinar on 1-31-18

Louder Than A Bomb

I have never been able to write poetry. Not good poetry, anyway. Give me 70,000 plus words to write and I’m happy. Give me 700 words for a flash fiction piece and I grit my teeth and write because the publisher pays me (and sends me glowing notes about how wonderful my stories are – never underestimate the power of a good “thank you” I probably would have stopped this torture long ago without those notes.) I won’t even attempt poetry. It’s beyond me. I don’t know how to put a set of near naked words on a page in a meaningful, emotion evoking fashion. A great poet can pull tears from a stone.

Chicago’s public schools are a bastion of young, enthusiastic, and all-around great poets.

Great speakers, great school, great DJ & host

I know. I recently judged a “Louder Than A Bomb” poetry slam from Young Chicago Authors. Those young people walking up to a microphone and sharing their creations were mesmerizing. One thing became obvious. Today’s young people have a lot on their minds.

And on their phones.

The majority of the students read their poems from their phone screens. I am not anti-technology, but I did notice one universal phenomena. Those who read from their screens never looked at the audience. Now, I realize public speaking is scary. I am terrified every time I stand in front of an audience, even though I speak on literacy and reading, my favorite topics. Even when I ask to speak, my stomach shakes. But I know I need to look at my audience, establish connections, help them hear the words that I speak. These kids urged us to “listen to the words” but they stared at screens. Maybe it was that public speaking anxiety. Or maybe because reading from the screen is different from reading from paper.

Three of the poets had their words written out on paper. And all three interspersed their reading with glances at the audience. Some included hand movements, and facial gestures. I think paper, especially hand-written, allows our eyes to scan and pull in bigger chunks than a screen does. I know I don’t have to stare at my notes when I bring them in paper, but I often get lost trying to find my place again with a speak on a computer screen. (Hence I use big headings and lost of white space to help me find my place again after I’ve spent time looking at my audience.)

Just my opinion, but something was lost with those who read from the screen, vs those with paper. This was emphasized by the one guy who had his poem memorized. Yes, he was older and more experienced. He also enabled the audience to “listen to the words” with our eyes as well as our ears. He enacted several portions of his poem, drawing us in deep. It was a great demonstration of why poetry is more a verbal and visual art than prose could ever be.

One last interesting phenomena I noted. I know people often say we should not bring race into things. But just this once, I will. There were poems about religion, family, significant others and abuse, weight. Several of the young African American students presented poems about social justice issues.

We had five judges scoring the poems. Which judge gave what score was supposed to be a secret. But the way we were seated left me able to see the scores of one other judge, the only other Black judge. So I noticed that when the social justice poems came up, when the students were talking about their fears of being people of color in this white world, the difference in the scores were quite noticeable. The first time I was surprised when the scores were read aloud. The second time, I wondered if we had all heard the same poem. The third time, I expected the score discrepancy.

Sometimes, we don’t hear the same words. Or maybe, the same words don’t convey the same impact, or level of pain. We could all deal with the poem about Christmas or missing a parent or problems with our significant others. The spread between scores was minimal. But not when the poem was about the injustice in the justice system as seen from the POV of a POC. Once the poem was about something as personal as race, “something so simple as the color of our skin holds so much power,” as one student said. The scores ranged widely, and because of my position, I didn’t have to guess which judges didn’t feel the passion and gave the low scores.

I absolutely do not think this was any kind of attempt by the white judges to downgrade the pain the black poets revealed in their poets. I think it was more about what they don’t see, and maybe can’t really feel. If they did not feel the emotional gut wrench from the words that I did, then its understandable they saw no reason to give it high marks.

That’s a dilemma we writers of color have to deal with. Be it judges at a poetry slam, or editors and agents making decisions on our manuscripts, or reviewers looking over our books. When the time comes to speak our truth, we have to wonder: will the audience even hear the words we are saying?

Posted in diversity, Poetry, School visit | Comments Off on Louder Than A Bomb

Voice and Ownvoices

I can’t count the number of times I have heard that word used by agents and editors at a writers conference I attended in the fall. Prairie Writers and Illustrators day is a yearly one-day affair by the Illinois chapter of SCBWI. The conference is hosted at Harper College in Palatine, Illinois every fall.

During panel discussions and individual workshops, the faculty repeatedly let attendees know that Voice was the word. One agent said she knew within the first two or three pages if a manuscript was one she wanted to acquire, solely by the voice on those pages. Another editor admitted that voice was the one thing she could not teach an author. As authors we are taught from the get-go that voice is all-important. Almost everyone in the writing profession, from editor, agent, and reader, agrees that a unique, authentic voice, a strong voice, is important.

Until the subject turns to Ownvoices.

Then, suddenly, many mainstream authors refuse to believe there might be something specific about the voices of authors who are part of a group or culture. They maintain that they can do as much as an authentic ownvoice can in their depictions of characters from other races, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations and abilities. Suddenly, asking for an authentic voice is wrong, discriminating against them. They are writers, they can write anything.

Time after time I hear authors claim they have a right to write outside their race. A character of color, or with a disability, or from some other religion or ethnicity “came to them” they say, so they want to include him or her in their story. Almost inevitably, they add they don’t want baggage to come with their character.

It almost seems like they want to create non-controversial characters who are simply white characters painted in blackface, or redface, or yellow face.

That is unfortunately common with a writer who says he or she doesn’t see color. The baggage is the character’s backstory. None of us exist without our history.  How can any author expect to correctly depict a world, a culture, a history that he or she does not see? Cultural authenticity, writing about real human beings with authentic backgrounds and history,  thoughts, fears and concerns, is not like crafting a fantasy world where everything comes solely from the author’s imagination. Nor is it about deciding whether to call skin color coffee or chocolate.

It requires eyes wide open, the ability to both see and empathize.  Otherwise, the voice you use with those characters that do not share your background immediately rings false. And that can result in charges that you were simply writing to a quota.

“If you cut us, do we not bleed?”

If you turn out caricatures of a group, or write stereotypical characters, don’t members of that group have a right to object? Sometimes it’s not because the author is white, its because their voice is warped and their words carry pain.

Posted in Conference, diversity, Multicultural, ownvoices, Voice | Tagged | Comments Off on Voice and Ownvoices

More on the “Color Blind” thing

When I was a kid, we used to have a song we sang when we walked down the street, deliberately bumping into people we didn’t like.

I am blind and I can’t see, and if I knock you down don’t you blame it on me.

As if that absolved us from guilt.

Being “color blind” requires that you pay no attention to the reality visible from the corners of your eyes. Certain parts of reality remain unseen, unheard, unnoticed.

Specificity, accuracy and authenticity all come from paying attention. A good writer is curious, and willing to step outside his/her normal boundaries. A great writer is someone willing to admit that what they think they know about other groups could be false.

Minority groups do not have the option of being color blind. The media, entertainment to news, businesses, unions, and all ordinary aspects of life are dominated by images of the majority culture.

Authors who really care about writing diversely and want to do more than exert their right to “write whatever I want,” strive to find new and innovative ways to learn their subject matter. They don’t settle for the quick and easy things everyone knows, or take the stereotype path.

Posted in A writer's life, diversity, NaNo | Comments Off on More on the “Color Blind” thing

So You Say You Don’t See Color

At first, the question the novice writer asked seemed simple.

A member of one of my writing groups asked whether describing one of her characters as “a black man” was racist.  That one word (racist, not black) often seems utterly terrifying for many white people – especially white authors. I started simply, by asking if she was describing other people in her story as white men or women. Or was she doing what so many authors, and readers, do: assuming that white was the default, and calling out anything other than the default as wrong or abnormal.

Her answer was a little ambiguous. First she said yes, of course she did. Then she added that there were only two other characters, a white man and woman. The woman in the story was lodging a complaint of sexual harassment against…guess who.

The author was adamant that, in spite of the potential for cliché or stereotype, the woman had to be white, the man dealing with her complaint had to be white, and the perpetrator had to be black. It could not possibly be racist because she an incident like that had happened to her, she was simply using that for her story. Since it really happened, she was certain the information had to be okay. Since she became so certain about that, I was left to wonder why she had even bothered to ask the question in the first place, because no matter what anyone said, she already knew what she intended to do, so no one could change her mind in any way.

The complication is, this is essentially a memoir, and I’ve noticed how people seem to always want to be 100% exact in a memoir. But at the same time, she finally admitted she had felt no reason to mention the race of the [white] man doing the investigation. That detail somehow did not matter. Nor had she done any more physical description about the black man except to give his race. Height, weight, demeanor, facial expression etc., the only thing that mattered enough to go in to her story was that he was black. My final question to her was, why was it necessary to mention race at all?

Is it because you know the default character is white, so unless you tell the reader otherwise, they would see all three characters in your tale as white, and that was something you could not have? Did his being black alter some crucial factors in the story so it was unthinkable to keep that knowledge from readers?

Sometimes racism is that simple, that it is absolutely imperative that people know the bad guy was black.

Posted in A writer's life, diversity, NaNo | Comments Off on So You Say You Don’t See Color

It feels good to be known

I was recognized today.

When you are a writer, that’s important. Even when, no especially when, another author knows your name.

I attended a writing workshop at the Northbrook, Illinois public library about crafting YA characters.  The library holds a series of workshops int he fall entitled NorthBrook Writes! These are all open to the public, you do not have to live in Northbrook to attend (good thing, because I don’t live there). I attend as many as I can.  Heck, the one last week actually gifted me with a story idea for, of all things, a YA Historical. I’m already in the thick of research, and that may become this yer’s NaNo novel.

I never know what gems I may pick up at these workshops. And they are all free. Northbrook, like a number of other libraries across the US, are actively looking into ways they can help content creators int heir communities. This workshop brought in YA author Michelle Falkoff. She had audience members introduce themselves. When it was my turn, I said my name and her eyes glazed over for a moment. Then she shouted out, “I know you.”

Wowser.

I have at least one fan, and quickly copped onto the opportunity to talk for a few brief seconds about my next book, Courage. (I promise, I was really brief)  Michelle went on to talk to us about character development, and then led us through an exercise where we picked a character and wrote:

  • What he/she wants
  • What he/she fears
  • A secret they hold

Then we also wrote 10-12 traits about this character.

I used the time to brainstorm about one of my characters from my to-be-written historical.  It’s not the main character, but it is an important secondary character who:

  • Wants to stay alive long enough to grow up and experience real freedom
  • Fears crowds so much he panics easily when too many people are around
  • And doesn’t want anyone to ever find out about the fire he set at a neighbors barn.

Things about him on my list:

  1. He doesn’t talk much, gives single word answers as much as possible.
  2. He walks around with his head bent and shuffles his feet, but not because he is shy.
  3. He’s sixteen, but large for his age.
  4. His family is extremely poor
  5. He never wanted to move with his parents from the farm to live in Chicago, but came because his life was in danger if he remained behind in Mississippi.
  6. He saw his best friend killed by a mob.
  7. He envies his cousin, born and raised in Chicago (my Main Character), for her  for her carefree lifestyle.
  8. He can’t swim.
  9. After spending the first ten years of his life a slave, he’s still not sure how much emancipation will really mean, even in Chicago in 1871

This is the as yet unnamed cousin of my adolescent girl Livia, who has lived her life a free Black in Chicago. It’s the fall of 1871, in Chicago. She’s not happy that her home is crowded with these new relatives from the south. Not happy at all that the summer ha been so hot and dry. And has no idea how unhappy both she and her cousin and the entire city will be on Sunday, October 8, when sparks fly at Mrs. O’Leary’s barn.

Yes, I began my character profile at today’s workshop. As I told attendees, even after three published novels, I almost always get something useful from continuing writing education.

Posted in A writer's life, character, Courage, Novel Writing | Comments Off on It feels good to be known

Courage Spotlight – Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is a quiet epidemic, hitting 25% of all women, and 7.6 percent of men at some point in their lives.  October is Domestic Violence month, for the millions of men, women and children who live within violent homes every day.

Domestic violence makes up 21% of all violent crimes, and has no respect for age, socioeconomic status, race, or geographic location. Occupation, income level, urban or suburban environment — studies show that none of these factors is an indicator of more or less incidents of domestic abuse. When it comes to racial divide, there is no difference either. According to Good Housekeeping,

“White, Black and Hispanic women all incur about the same rates of violence committed by an intimate partner.”

Acts of domestic violence has long-lasting effects on victims, such as PTSD and depression. Even when there is only one aggressor and one designated victim in the family, each act damages the entire family constellation. One in fifteen children witness domestic violence every year. Most tellingly, the Domestic Violence Intervention Program reports:

“Women are 70 times more likely to be killed in the two weeks after leaving than at any other time during the relationship.”

Linda’s mother was one of those women.

Linda Murhasselt is one of the children in Courage. Her father physically and emotionally abused her mother until their divorce.  At nine, Linda lost both parents, her mother to death, her father into prison for the crime. Now twelve, she has forgotten how to trust and can’t forgive anyone, not even herself. She feels responsible for welcoming her father back home, the act that resulted in letting him close enough to attack her mother that last time.

Like Linda, the ten million children exposed to DV yearly become fearful and anxious. They are always on guard, watching and waiting and never feeling truly safe. That’s why she cautions her friend T’Shawn Rodgers against trusting his brother, Lamont. She knows first hand that anyone can pretend they have changed.  She doesn’t want her friend to experience even more pain at the hands of his violent brother. Not when she fears she will never be able to forgive herself.

Click here for more on COURAGE

Posted in Courage, MG, Multicultural, YA | Comments Off on Courage Spotlight – Domestic Violence

Courage Spotlight – Sickle Cell Disease

There are many kinds of courage. Living with Sickle Cell Disease requires more than one of them.

Dontae Morrow is twelve, and does not want to be labeled the sick kid. He may have to live with sickle cell disease, but that does not define him. Being the minister’s son, however, does sometimes prove difficult to deal with.

He lives on Chicago’s south side where he and T’Shawn have become best friends. Truth is, he gets a little put off when T insists on “mothering” him, but that doesn’t interfere with their friendship. Medications and T’s care have kept him crisis free for some time…until the day the boys have an encounter with the Chicago Police Department that leaves him writhing in pain and fearing for his short life.

Sickle cell disease is a group of blood disorders that effect hemoglobin. It is the most common inherited blood disorder in the United States, affecting 1 in 500 African Americans, and 1 in 1,000 Hispanic Americans. The disease can also be found in People of Middle Eastern, Asian, Indian, and Mediterranean descent.

Extreme pain can occur in individuals with SCD during a crisis, when sickled blood cells clog the smaller arteries depriving tissue of oxygen. Thanks to advances in treatment, many people with SCD live long and productive lives. But SCD can also cut lives short due to anemia and the damage that can occur to tissue and organs when deprived of oxygen during a crisis. This can include the possibility of strokes, even in young children.

The good news is the FDA recently approved a new treatment for SCD, as reported here.

That’s why, even though he hates being the sick kid, Dontae mostly follows the rules designed to keep himself strong and healthy, such as eating well, getting enough rest, and keeping up with his checkups.  The problem is, he can’t avoid the stress that comes when a police officer stops him because he “fits the description.” Stress brings on a crisis, and a crisis means he can’t comply with their orders – not even when a gun is pointed at his chest.

Click here for more on COURAGE

Posted in blacklivesmatter, character, Courage, MG, Multicultural | Tagged | Comments Off on Courage Spotlight – Sickle Cell Disease

Finding a Literary Agent

This post is a response to a question about how I got an agent, from someone about to start the process of searching for one of their own. The timing on was excellent. I have been commissioned to create a workshop on the business side of writing for KidLitNation.com, and chose to use this as part of my process for pulling the workshop together, because getting an agent is a common topic.

My first step in the process was making sure I understood what an agent could, and could not, do for me. Beginning writers often see agents as fairy godparents who wave a magic wand and get their story accepted by a publisher with a huge dollar contract.

Agents have contacts and reputations and negotiation skills. That’s what they bring to the table. They also want and expect a partnership with authors in the effort of polishing your manuscript, making the sale, and doing what comes after. Since they only make money if you, the author, make money, it is in their interest to partner with authors who will be prolific and professional. Since there are lots of authors out there, they can afford to be choosy.

In fact, most good agents are inundated with queries. Your query has to zing to stand out of the crowd of the hundreds the agent receives EVERY WEEK. And responding to queries is a minor part of his/her job. So you need to write something that stands out in that haystack and makes them say, “hmm, I see potential.”

There are three ways to attract an agent that I know of.

1. Get your actual manuscript in front of them as the result of a contest or auction. Many chapters of the RWA hold contests with various agents/editors as the final judges, so if your work is good enough you can get it in front of them by being a finalist. Other organizations do the same. KidLitNation recently held a fundraising auction that included critiques by several agents and editors. Information on some contests for all genres of writing, including non-fiction and poetry, can be found at http://www.stephiesmith.com/contests.html (Note, this is not an endorsement of any of the contests noted it is simply information.)
2. Attend a writer’s conference. SCBWI holds two major conferences a year, one in New York, the other in Los Angeles. In addition, numerous state chapters of the organization hold smaller, local conferences. Agents and editors attend and normally either take pitches from attendees, or invite all attendees to submit their manuscripts. (BTW, this often includes publishing houses that are otherwise closed to new submissions or will only take agented submissions.) Attending the conference gives you a side-door past the regular query pile. Note: This year KidLitNation used the proceeds of its fundraising efforts to pay the conference fees of ten authors and/or illustrators to attend the Illinois SCBWI conference.
3. Write that super-awesome query. 95% of queries earn a no. That leaves 5% that get a followup. You just need a great book and a super query.

I actually had results from two of the three methods. First: the query.

I queried, and queried, and queried. In the meantime I kept learning and improving both the query and the manuscript. Here’s a version of my initial query for my debut YA novel, Pull. (The publisher changed my title, darnit!)

How much do we owe the dead? Especially when our life is all we have to give? In my 68,000 word Young Adult novel, Pull My String, David Albacore is haunted by his mother’s ghost as he searches for an answer to that question.

Seventeen-year-old David enters his senior year in a rough Chicago neighborhood feeling a failure. Not because of school, although given a choice he’d drop out in a second. But his choices died the night his father’s bullet ended his mother’s life. David dedicates himself to keeping her memory alive and parenting for his sisters. Things seem to be holding together until a school bully makes David a personal target. Worse yet, David and the bully’s former girlfriend become a couple, draining his meager resources and alienating his sister. Things fall apart when David loses his job and his new girlfriend. He knows a man’s supposed to take care of his family but the stress of being a man at seventeen leaves him drowning in resentment for everything and everyone he loves.

I am an active member of the Chicago North chapter of Romance Writers of America and the Illinois chapter of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and take writing classes and workshops through Harper College and Chicago State University. In addition, I have contributed several short stories to the Arlington Almanac, a quarterly journal circulated in the Chicagoland area, since 2007. As a lurker on your blog for some time I appreciate your advice and know your interest in Young Adult fiction. Per your instructions I’ve included the first five pages in my email. If you find Pull My String interesting I will be happy to send you the complete manuscript.

Thanks very much for your time and consideration.

That actually got little more than form rejections. Here’s the version that worked and got me an offer –

As an active member of the Chicago-North chapter of Romance Writers of America, I have heard many good things about you and your agency from both Courtney Milan and Simone Elkeles. Simone provided valuable feedback on my writing and mentioned that you had an interest in young adult books written for males, leading me to hope my 67,000 word YA novel, Pull My String, will be of interest to you.

Seventeen-year-old David can’t wipe out the memory of the night when he failed to keep his father from murdering his mother. When he departs the elite Grogan Hills Academy and enters a new school on Chicago’s south-side, he assumes a secret identity in hopes of a quiet senior year. He’s prepared to give up sports, friends, and his desire for independence to care for his younger sisters. His quest for anonymity is shattered when he’s forced to rescue one sister from an attack by a group of mean girls led by “The Dare,” the acknowledged school slut. David is prepared for the school psychologist’s attempt to force him out of the shell he’s drawn around himself. But he’s not prepared for the way guilt makes him lash out at the people he loves, forcing him to confront the fear that he’ll follow in his father’s destructive footsteps. Nor is he prepared for his growing attraction to The Dare, a girl hiding a secret shame more destructive than his own.

I am an African American woman who grew up in Chicago’s inner city, and knows first-hand the struggle to be the responsible eldest child after the loss of a parent. In addition to being an active member of RWA, I have had several short stories published in the Arlington Almanac, a quarterly journal circulated in the Chicago area, in 2008 and 2009. If you find the premise of Pull My String interesting I will be happy to send you the complete manuscript.

Thanks very much for your time and consideration.

Note that with the second, I tried to establish a rapport with the agent, noting something we had in common, or at least a reason why I did not pick their name out of thin air. I also name dropped one of their clients who I happened to know, at the time we were both members of the same writing group.

The next paragraph tells something about the story, concentrating on the characters and their inner journeys. Its not a synopsis but a hook for the agent. I do not try to tell the whole story because I don’t want to leave them yawning, I want them to be enticed.

The query ends with information about myself, something that lets them know I consider myself a professional. And never forget that all-important thank you.

This query got me an offer. An agent responded saying that she really liked the concept. But, almost simultaneously, I got an offer from another source, the contest route.

I had entered Pull My String into a contest earlier that year. Actually I entered several contests, I considered them a great, inexpensive way to obtain feedback on the opening of a manuscript. I chose contests with three judges to maximize the feedback I would obtain, that’s really all I was looking for. Over time, I used the judges comments to improve my manuscript. When I entered the Golden Rose contest with my story about a teen boy, I never expected more than additional feedback.

Instead I became a finalist.

Then I received an email saying the agent who was the final judge LOVED the book and wanted to represent me.

There I was, with two nearly simultaneous offers arriving over the Thanksgiving holiday. (I will never forget that) In the end I signed with my contest judge, Andrea Somberg from the Harvey Klinger agency, because LOVED trumped liked to me. And because I spent a few furious days researching them both.

As an FYI – from the time I finished the book to the time I signed with Ms. Somberg took just under a year. She sold it a few months afterward. All of this is actually extremely fast for a first time author. But then, Pull My String was not the first book I wrote. My first published novel was actually my third completed manuscript. While writing those first books my writing skills improves. I also took coursed, both online and in person. I can look back on my first books now and see why they never got anything but form rejections.

My big piece of advice – send out your queries, join professional writing organizations, take classes. And keep writing. There is no better way to improve. And remember that you and the agent are individuals entering into a business partnership. Let them know that you will be a contributing partner, not just sending them a manuscript and expecting a miracle.

References:

  1. My column on the “Who I Got My Agent” blog – http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/how-i-got-my-agent-b-a-binns-and-a-free-book-giveaway
  2. A blog from my agent Andrea Somberg – http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/agent-advice-andrea-somberg-of-harvey-klinger-inc
Posted in A writer's life, Agents, Novel Writing, Publishing, Pull | Comments Off on Finding a Literary Agent