Contemplation, at the end of a season

It’s the end of awards season in SFFdom. The Killing Moon was published in May of 2012, and I meant to address this in May of 2013, after it had been on the market for a year — but when the book got nominated for a Nebula, a Locus, and the World Fantasy Award, I decided to wait and see if it won any of them. Alas, it did not. (The Shadowed Sun won a Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice, tho’!) That said, the old aphorism that it’s an honor just to be nominated is very much truth for me, and here’s why.

I consider The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun to be my first novels.

Oh, they weren’t published first, which I suppose is the ultimate arbiter of firstness. And certainly, the story I’ve told about having written an early version of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms first is true; I finished that in roughly 1997, shortly after grad school. The thing I should probably emphasize, tho’, is that that first version of 100kK was unpublishable. I’ve written a dozen unpublishable novels; remember, I’ve been writing fiction since I was a child. Most of those novels are crap. That early version of 100kK was simply salvageable crap. And note that I salvaged it by tossing the whole book and rewriting it from scratch — but that happened after the final draft of TKM was done and had made the rounds of publishers and agents, and even after I’d finished a sequel to TKM. Any scholar who wants to consider the evolution of my writing chronologically should position The Killing Moon as my first novel, and The Kingdom of Gods as my latest.

This isn’t something writers talk about when a novel first comes out, note. Bad marketing mojo; the last thing an author wants to do is suggest that their brand-spanking-new book is an old trunk novel dusted off and given new life. Still, the sad fact is that very few writers break in with the actual first novel that they’ve written, and many of those authors later sell the older ones. Were those older novels bad novels? Sometimes. Sometimes not. Sometimes they just weren’t what the industry was willing to accept at that time.

For me, The Killing Moon was special. It was the first novel I’d written up to that point which felt ready for publication; the first book representative of my maturation as a writer. When I sent it around to prospective agents in 2005, I got several positive nibbles and two solid bites, which ultimately landed me with Lucienne Diver, my current agent. Thus TKM became my first professional novel; i.e., the first one that had the potential to earn me money. It’s certainly the one I first pinned my hopes of publication to.

…Only to see them dashed. My agent sent the book around to every publisher in New York, and all of them rejected it. Some did it with important caveats; Orbit, for example, made some very positive noises. But other publishers’ rejections were more offputting, even though they uniformly praised the book as well-written and engaging. Some thought it was “too esoteric” — by which I assume the setting wasn’t familiar enough to prospective epic fantasy readers, though I suppose it could mean other things. Okay. Not much fantasy-Egypt out there, maybe not much wanted; I get that. Some weren’t sure how to market it. Okay. Apparently “fantasy” or “epic fantasy” wasn’t sufficient. Some weren’t sure who its audience would be.

I have many thoughts about what that last statement means.

So.

That was in 2006, and you can probably guess that that was a hard year for me. I almost quit writing, to be honest. Well, I can’t quit, not really; like I said, been doing it compulsively since childhood. But I almost quit trying to get published traditionally with one of the Big Six. I got an offer from a small press for no advance and limited distribution, and I actually gave it serious thought. Colleagues and family members pushed me to self-publish TKM, and I considered doing so for a long time. A fellow black author told me, and I have never forgotten his words, “They don’t want us or anything we’re going to write, so you’re going to have to do it yourself.” For awhile, when things were at their roughest, I believed this.

One person caused me to ultimately reject this belief: Octavia Butler. I never met her, alas, but I knew of her. She’d managed to break in at an even harder time, and she’d found a vast and varied audience for her esoteric settings — so why couldn’t I? Then as I looked around, I found other reasons to hope: Tananarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okorafor, Sheree Thomas; everywhere I looked in SFFdom, other black women were breaking in and making big, telling their stories in their voices to their questionable audiences. I wanted to be among those women. And one thing finally caused me to reject the idea of self-publishing: I wanted my book to be everywhere. I found Butler via the shelves of my public library, so I wanted kids like me to be able to find my work there just as easily. I wanted to be on the shelves in every chain store and independent shop, not just the ones that let me hand-sell them a few copies. I wanted foreign rights sales, which have made my work available in more than ten languages thus far. I wanted the possibility of getting onto school reading lists and college curricula. I wanted to be considered for awards I had heard of, and reviewed in publications the whole world would see.

See, once I recovered from my melancholy about finding no takers for The Killing Moon, I got angry. I knew full well TKM wasn’t a second-class book, as some of those rejections seemed to imply. I knew it was a perfectly good book — three award nominations’ worth of good, I was later to realize — and that the reasons for its rejection had nothing to do with the work’s quality. So in my fury, I decided that TKM deserved the broadest publication I could give it: every bookshelf, in every city, in every country. On this fucking planet. Haven’t gotten there yet, but there’s still time.

I’ve been thinking about all this as I read Léonicka’s reaction to the Lee & Low agent roundtable, which you should check out too (both the roundtable and the response). These parts in particular resonated hard for me:

1. Do not pigeon-hole your writers of color.

Do not suggest that they write about “Africa.” Do not tell them their character needs a more “Asian” name. In short, don’t try to shape the author’s book based on what you think those people should be writing or what you think those people should be reading.

And don’t preemptively decide that an author’s audience might consist of only those people, just because she’s one of them.

The idea that the best projects will simply come is similar to the “we’ll find the best actor for the role” argument, and identical to the “I’ll just read the books that catch my eye” argument. All are based on the idea that every project, actor, and book has any equal opportunity. That is categorically false.

I have also run into this assumption, at every stage of my career. Generally I’ve heard it framed in a way that’s meant to sound like praise: Well, you broke in without help, so why can’t those other authors of color do the same?

But here’s something else I probably haven’t emphasized enough: I did have help. I’ve mentioned how crucial those early role models were in encouraging me to try for a pro career, and keeping me from quitting when things got ugly. But just as crucially, somewhere between my first and second attempts to break in as a novelist, the entire genre changed, just a little. Massive discussions about race and gender had begun to take place, spurred by early social media like Livejournal, and these were a clear signal to the SFF establishment that there was an audience out there for the kind of stuff I write. There always has been. More importantly, I did not have equal opportunity. In order to get my Nebula/WFA/Locus-nominated first novel published, I had to write a trilogy that got even more awards and nominations. I had to work around assumptions that a white writer writing white characters in a pseudo-medieval-European setting would not face, like Will anybody except “her people” read this book?

And those little signals of welcome that Léonicka suggests agents (and editors) use? Those are crucial. When I first started out, no one did anything as simple as posting a “writers from marginalized groups are encouraged to query” notice — but there were other signs to be interpreted, and which I sought, sometimes unconsciously. I was happy in my Boston writers’ group, the BRAWLers, because its membership was equally male and female at the time, and because its members were willing to ask each other hard questions about representation and inclusivity. (My current writing group is just as good.) I submitted my first pro-qualifying story to Strange Horizons because they did have a diversity notice on their site; they were one of the first markets to do this. (Likewise, I stopped submitting to Fantasy and Science Fiction because their tables of contents were light on the women and heavy on the bigots, which sends its own message.) I tried for the Gulliver Travel Grant, and won it in 2004, only because I knew that the Speculative Literature Foundation is another project of Mary Anne Mohanraj’s — another author of color, and the then-editor of Strange Horizons. I chose Lucienne as my agent because I researched her recent sales and saw that she’d successfully represented other authors who were pushing the boundaries of inclusivity within the genre, like Lynn Flewelling and Carole Berg. I’ve stayed with Lucienne because she believed in The Killing Moon as much as I did, and she never once suggested that I change any of the esoteric elements that made it unacceptable that first time ’round. She in turn advised me on publishers and editors whom she thought would mesh well with my interests, which landed me with Devi Pillai, one of only two editors of color in SFFdom. I’ve stayed with Orbit because they’re fucking amazing, and their commitment to this genre’s future — not just its history — is visible in nearly everything they choose to publish.

No writer does this without help, and without self-doubt. But white male writers can readily find published role models, groups to join, welcoming markets; they’ve got plenty of opportunities to get big-name reviews, and plenty of representation on awards lists. If a white guy’s novel gets rejected, he probably doesn’t wonder whether systemic racism or sexism played a role. If a white guy chooses to self-publish, it’s probably not because he thinks there’s no place for someone like him in this genre, for values of “someone like him” that include his race and his gender. And if his rejected first novel finally gets published to international approbation, he probably doesn’t view it with the same kind of bittersweet sense of pride and vindication that I do. After all, only a few years ago, The Killing Moon couldn’t even get published.

Look how far we’ve come. But we’ve still got a ways to go.

17 Responses »

  1. The road is long…but we’ve gone a ways down the road. And hopefully, together, we will. Even with reluctance.

  2. Thank you! The uphill climb you’ve already been through makes the end products that much more impressive — and your honesty about the continued climbing makes me that much more hopeful for the future of SFF publishing. Your struggle is appreciated!

  3. This was brilliant. Thank you.

  4. Thanks for persevering, Nora. The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun are some of the best fantasy I’ve read in years.

  5. You are wonderful. I am glad you are in the universe. <3

  6. I am glad you were finally able to get published. The enjoyment all of your novels have brought me is huge. And as far as an audience for Egyptian themed books goes…I love them. Give me more!

  7. I’ve actually been thinking about this for a while, but I just wanted to tell you that I’m a big fan of yours. I think that your fantasy is amazing, and I absolutely devoured the Inheritance trilogy and I recently picked up an read The Killing Moon on a single cross-country flight. I think that you provided a great perspective from really brilliantly written characters in well-plotted and well-written books.

    Tons of praise. If you need more effusiveness, just let me know and I’d be happy to do my best to gloss poetic about the merit of your work.

    I also have to say: I’m a white guy. A geeky, pasty, slightly overweight science fiction and fantasy reader in the stereotypical archetype, and I want to clearly point out that I _like_ reading authors that can write from perspectives that I can’t necessarily understand or could have created. That’s why I read speculative fiction in the first place.

    It infuriates me to no end that it’s assumed that I can’t deal with authors or even _characters_ of color. Some of my favorite books feature primary characters of color. I’d say that my one of my favorite books is China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh, which features a gay half-Chinese American in a society where the (white) American part is a major obstacle for him to overcome.

    One of my other favorite authors is Michelle Sagara West, who wrote the Sun Sword books. Those are incredibly good books. I’ve also read a lot of Octavia Butler, although that was a few years ago now, and I really enjoyed it.

    There’s quite a lot of dross that gets put out (90% of everything is crap) in every field, but the stuff that’s white-washed is usually the worst, most pointless of the crap.

    _Thank you_ for breaking into science fiction. I know that it couldn’t have been easy and that you’ve had struggles that I can’t imagine, but we need writers of all shapes, colors, cultures and languages in the science fiction and fantasy communities. So, thank you for working so hard to be a good writer in spite of all of the jerks and bigots and the publishers willing to white wash what they publish.

    Also, I just want to say that I’ve been trying to learn more about the authors that I read so that I can do a better job of picking out the morons and avoiding them. I’m sure I don’t always succeed, but hopefully I can make some sort of positive impact eventually.

  8. There’s this book about a honorable hetero Greek family facing a villainous homosexual Russian in which the hero kills his ennemies and gets the girl. It was written by a established author who uncoincidentally was a white male.
    The thing is, the book was esoteric.
    So it was rejected again and again. According to legend, the book ended up being published by a non-fiction outfit best known for serving the needs of automobile enthusiasts… before becoming one of the handful of biggest sellers ever in its genre.

    Like many readers, I like esoteric. So I loved The Killing Moon. But I don’t consider myself a fantasy fan and I can’t think of another (relatively) recent release marketed as fantasy that’s in the same league. Maybe that’s merely ignorance speaking but is it not the case that Dreamblood has a different audience than most Anglo fantasy series?
    I loved Octavia Butler too but as far as esotericness is concerned her own 2005 vampire book doesn’t hold a candle to TKM. Does any of her books?
    In my mind it’s not the Egyptian stuff as such that’s esoteric. Other settings such as Stargate’s had Egypt in space so it’s not even the combination of a Nilotic civilization with the setting’s iconic not-moon. Rather it’s the religion/magic/politics… which are grounded in the material setting of course but are also more esoteric than any landscape, no matter how striking.
    Of course I may be misunderstanding what they meant by “estoric”…

  9. Thank you so much for writing this and sharing it. I think every person of color with writing hopes and goals needs to read this. As an Asian author who likes to write fiction based on mythology she grew up with, create strong heroines and give characters “Asian” names…I faced a lot of this and sometimes, often, it’s hard to keep writing.

    I’m so glad you kept writing and won all the well-deserved recognition. I’m so glad your books are on shelves and lists. But more than that, I’m glad you’re a wonderful writer who uses her skills to create rich fictional worlds and also share truths and thoughts that need to be out in the open.

    Hugs.

  10. Thank you for writing this. Thank you for keeping on going, and publishing your work, which I love. Thank you also for giving hope to so many.

  11. Thank you for sharing this.

  12. Wow… I had no idea! I’m really sorry to hear this, but so happy you pushed on! I love all of your books and I think they bring something new to fantasy. Love it. Oh, and I’m not “one of your people” either (please know I feel awful just TYPING that).

  13. Miss Jemisin, I am a girl from Bulgaria, a small Eastern European country, who is currently living in England. I haven’t read the “Killing Moon” novel yet, but I just want you to know that I totally love, admire and cherish your “Inheritance” trilogy, for me these books were perfect and a hundred thousand times better than the majority of the novels published nowadays!

    What the publishing agencies say, about the idea that books should be targeted at a bigger readers group, is something I don’t agree with. In London, books are marketed and advertised just as much as movies (we see posters in the tube, billboards on the streets, ads in the bookstores and newspapers) and we all know what a good promotion can do for a product. Sometimes our tastes can be governed by what we are exposed to – if only a certain type of books is shown to us we are subconsciously guided to believe they will be worth our money (just like someone repeating a movie trailer until we are convinced it will be the best film ever!) For instance when the “Twilight” books came out, the demand for Vampire fiction was huge, so publishing agencies “milked the cow” for as long as possible. But the demand can also be controlled by what the agencies are allowing the readers to buy. It is possible that some authors don’t get the same exposure just because they don’t write on a “trendy” subject, but they write because they have a story to tell, and that’s why I love your books! I sometimes read authors’ posts about their agencies requesting a “vampire romance slash young adult novel” or fairies, or werewolves, or angels and what not. However I want to feel that the author actually enjoyed writing their book, coming up with characters and places and using their own imagination and inspiration!

    Sorry for ranting so much, what I really want to say is: I don’t care what the agencies think! Sometimes, they are too concerned about how much money they can “milk” out of a genre, even if the readers regret buying their books afterwards (happens to me all the time). And only few agencies actually value creativity and professionalism, but I am so glad they DO exist! Someone said: “If you’ve changed one mind, you’ve succeeded!” Thanks to your books, I still enjoy fantasy (despite all the sad excuses of novels that get published every year), and I enjoy reading from a different perspective, I enjoy trying to understand people that I don’t necessarily correlate with right away, I enjoy discovering something different and original and I am so glad there are still authors out there who fight (and write) for what they believe in!

    I sincerely apologize for any English mistakes and for sounding whiny and too opinionated. I just don’t want to see talented people doubting themselves ever again!

    One of your many fans!
    Gery

  14. This, in the midst of National Novel Writing Month — where i’m banging my head against my desk and threatening to throw my laptop out of a fifteenth story window — this is right on time. I mean RIGHT on time. I’m a fan of your work as well as a frustrated author. But what i saw in this single post is a goldmine of inspiration, encouragement, and resources.

    Thank you.

  15. I just finished reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and I’m about to go out and buy everything else you have available. I thought, “oh let me look up her blog” and now I love you even more.

    I actually drifted away from fantasy for a few years because I felt like I’d read it already. Then I started digging deeper for more diverse recommendations than I was finding on the B&N shelf and discovered a little revolution of the genre going on. So exciting! Like most avid readers (I hope!) I read for interesting stories, to be transported to other worlds. Why would I want the same thing all the time? Of all the genres, fantasy has the potential to be anything you want!

    I’m also big on interesting worldbuilding, so when I read about vast, rich kingdoms that cover numerous types of environment and are bursting with marketplaces full of exotic goods–and then all the peoples are white and you can only tell them apart by their elaborate clothes or sometimes hair color–then I think, “Author, you missed something here.” Diversity is realistic. It doesn’t need a reason to be, it just is.

  16. Love this post. Glad I re-found the blog. (I keep forgetting to wander beyond Facebook. My bad.)

    Commenting because Samantha, I <3 very very hard your comment, "Diversity is realistic. It doesn’t need a reason to be, it just is."

    I self-published because I don't have Ms. Jemisin's confidence, and the editor I worked with said he almost threw my manuscript against the wall because I didn't explain why my heroine was Pakistani-American. (The airships, the pirates, the plague were all cool. But what's a Pakistani-American doing in my soup?)

    So thank you so much for that.

    alia

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Dreamblood Book One:

The Killing Moon

The Killing Moon

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