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.
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.