In Brandy Colbert’s Pointe, 17-year-old elite ballet dancer Theo Cartwright deals with the return of her childhood best friend, who was kidnapped four years earlier.
1. Sometimes you have to give up control.
I have a career in magazine journalism, so I’m used to intense deadlines and having my worked edited before it’s published. In the last few years, I’ve transitioned to the copyediting side, and I’m the last person to see the text before the pages are shipped to the printer each week. It’s a lot of responsibility, but I also have quite a bit of control over the process. Working with a book editor was a whole new game. Fiction is much more personal to me. While the words come from me either way, with fiction I’m creating a whole new world, so I’m much more attached to the situations and characters in that world. I revised Pointe with my editor for many, many months, and we collaborated very well, but sometimes I’d get stuck on a certain word or scene I wanted to remain, when they actually weren’t moving the story forward. It was hard to see the big picture when I was in the thick of revisions, and I had to plead a good case if I went against a suggested edit that would significantly change the story. Now I look back at certain scenes we lengthened or shortened or omitted altogether, and I’m happy I was able to give up that control and listen. My book is much better for it.
2. Honesty is the best policy.
I’ve always liked edgy fiction, but I was too scared to write it at first. Frightened. I thought people wouldn’t be able to separate the author from the work, or that writing “unlikeable” characters would be the death of my career that hadn’t even started. The truth is, writing honest characters with honest motivations is what helped me find my voice. My characters may not always make the best decisions, but they’re the right decisions for those characters at that time. It means I get to know them inside and out—what they’ll do when life is great in their world, or how they’ll react when faced with some of their darkest moments. To me, not being an honest writer means I’m being a lazy writer, and my stories deserve so much more than that.
3. People might not think you got it right—even if you’re a person of color.
There’s a lot of talk about diversity in children’s lit these days, and it’s a conversation that we need to keep having until we start seeing more diverse books on the shelves. Along with these conversations comes the fear that authors who write diverse characters (particularly those who are writing outside of their experience) are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Well, yes. But being a person of color doesn’t mean readers will automatically get on board with what I’ve written. My main character, Theo, grows up in a way that resembles some of my own upbringing—she has a stable home life, she’s active in the arts, and she lives in a predominantly white, Midwestern suburb where few people look like her. Theo’s story is part of the black experience, but it’s not the black experience. Just as someone in the black community could totally relate to her, someone else could think I got the character completely wrong. Additionally, one of her best friends is Mexican-American, and while I’ve had several Mexican-American friends, acquaintances, and neighbors over the years, I don’t know if I got his character right. I drew from my experiences with another culture, and tried to remain authentic and respectful to the character and his background. All I can do is hope I got it right for someone.
4. Trust the people who got you this far.
Publishing is a delightful, thrilling, scary business. The highs are extraordinarily high, and the lows can be utterly depressing. I wrote three books before Pointe, and saw lots of rejection in those four years I was seeking representation for my work. When I got The Call from my now-agent, we easily chatted on the phone for over an hour, and I knew she was the right agent for me. When I saw the pre-offer ideas my now-editor had for my book, I knew she was the right editor for Pointe. I’m fairly pragmatic, especially when it comes to business, but it’s harder to remain rational when it comes to publishing. Writing a book is so personal, and that means everything based around it can seem very personal. Emotions run high. My agent and editor take extremely good care of me, but sometimes they have to tell me things I don’t want to hear. And sometimes, that is a real bitter pill. But the thing is, they’ve been doing this a lot longer than me; they’ve seen just about every possible scenario in this business that I’m just starting out in. I admire the fact that they tell me the things I need to hear, things that make me a better writer, person, and professional. Attempting to establish a writing career is just a little bit nuts in itself, and I feel incredibly grateful to have found people I respect and trust to guide me along.
5. It’s not a race. No, really.
My book sold in October 2011 and is being published in April 2014. A lot can happen in two and a half years. I went through countless editorial letters. I threw out whole drafts and completely started over. I saw all of my friends who’d sold their first books around the same time as me start to get their covers, their release dates, their blurbs—and I was still stuck in content edits, wondering if my book would ever be finished. I cried over line edits. My agent repeatedly (and kindly) told me that things could and would start happening for me when the book was finished, that I had to do the work first. So I did it. I worked harder on that book than I’ve ever worked on anything in my life. Then I was finished and—I missed working on the book! But my agent was right. As soon as I turned in that final draft, things started happening. I think a lot about all the work that went into Pointe back when it was just a document I was sending to my editor. My publishing journey was longer than most people’s I know, but every part of this process has been a dream for me. Do the work, indeed.