My Leap into the Street

ojaysEnter the backstabbers…

When my novel was on submission and I first got notified by my agent that an acquiring editor wanted to talk to me about my book, I was thrilled. I knew that a conversation with an editor was the next step on the way to getting a book deal. A phone call meant that the editor was really serious about wanting to acquire my novel. So I was focused more on the fact that an editor wanted to talk to me, than thinking about the content of what she might say in the conversation.

Mercedes Fernandez, the acquiring editor at Kensington, started out the conversation by praising the book and telling me what she liked about it. But she also questioned me about genre. In particular, she was considering the acquisition for Kensington’s Dafina imprint, which would brand it “urban women’s fiction.” Dafina also handled “street lit,” and Mercedes wanted to make sure that I, as someone with an Ivy League background, who taught creative writing at an elite public university, would be ready to make my book even more gritty. She explained that a signature of the genre was a consistent high octane intensity and ever-present danger. The characters never knew whom to trust. She asked if I would be comfortable bringing the book further in line with the genre.

I didn’t have to take long to think about it. I was not only comfortable, but even excited to do so. In particular, I realized that the book had missed opportunities to explore themes of betrayal. I am not particularly drawn to writing about betrayal, but the heist genre is also a natural place to explore how people do or don’t stay loyal to each other when there are potentially millions at stake.

I had already included a woman who was catty and competitive, but she was a very peripheral character, one who gets shut down by the protagonist early in the book. I liked her presence, because otherwise all the bad guys were men, and it came off a bit Battle-of-the-Sexes. But it was interesting to think about including a Judas character, someone much closer to the protagonist who had the power to betray her and inflict real damage. Not only did it work well with the heist plot, but it also worked well with the character arc. Issues of trust and mistrust were already central to Marisol’s emotional journey.

Prior to the editor acquiring the book, she asked me for a revised outline which included the new material (thank goodness she didn’t ask me to actually make the written revisions). However, in my communication with the editor, I also included a segment that I called “Deviation from the genre.” There were several things that were atypical of urban women’s fiction, but I was not willing to change them in order to get the deal. Among those dealbreakers, I wasn’t willing to cut the protagonist’s trip to Cuba in the latter part of the book. It slows down the action, but deepens the character. Also, I wasn’t going to use designer/brand names for clothing, cars, shoes and makeup. This is typical of the genre, but not my style. In fact, the majority of my copyedit comments were highlights of my fictional brands, and the fact checkers reporting that they had searched the internet for those brands and couldn’t find them.

It feels good to know that I stood my ground on those issues where I felt strongly, and I still got the deal. So now my book has been enhanced by landing in the “street lit” genre. I have more conflict, more danger, and the presence of not just one but two backstabbers.

As the O’Jays put it: They smile in your face, all the time they want to take your place…

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Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, My Brown Baby, KQED Pop, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, and she has been a guest on HuffPostLive. She is the author of the children's picture book PUFFY: PEOPLE WHOSE HAIR DEFIES GRAVITY. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, UPTOWN THIEF, in 2016. For more info, go to ayadeleon.wordpress.com.

This article has 4 Comments

  1. “…fact checkers reporting that they had searched the internet for those brands and couldn’t find them.”

    Hee hee.

    When I see that sort of thing in a book, I always think that the book will seem really dated at some point, and maybe very soon. It’s like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo where the detailed specs of the “top of the lline” computers make it immediately obvious that the book was out of date before it was even published (at least in English).

  2. Looking forward to your published book, Aya! My novel-in-progress casts a woman as antagonist, espousing politics and responsible for personal betrayals that don’t reflect my own views. I’ve enjoyed making her more complex and against type, but also fear a bit that she’s fodder for misogyny. Glad you’ve found a way to handle this.

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