Sarah R. Callender


In Writing on July 28, 2010 at 7:31 am

When I was eight months pregnant with our son, Buddy, I dreamed I was going to give birth NOT to a baby boy or a baby girl, but to a baby dragon. One with a huge wingspan and one of those pointy arrow-shaped dragon tails that, much like its large wings, would do some serious damage on the way out. If you know what I mean.

Yet because I was entering motherhood with a fairly hefty dose of undiagnosed depression, dreams that were totally nutters became totally realistic. This particular dream rooted itself into my list of things to worry about, a lengthy list that already included things like Spina Bifida and The Baby Might Hate Me and What If the Epidural Guy Doesn’t Arrive on Time. Indeed, add Major Vaginal Laceration by Pointy Dragon Tail to that list.

On some level of course, I knew it was highly unlikely that I would be giving birth to a dragon. But could I really be 100% sure? At 20 weeks along, we had opted to be surprised, genderly-speaking, and frankly at that point, I hadn’t thought to ask the ultrasound technician if there had been anything to suggest my baby was unusual in any way . . . if there was any sign of, say, scales. Or perhaps fire-breath. Who asks questions like that? I’ll tell you who: people who are nutters.

So instead of confiding in a medical professional, I told my Sister, of my fears: that deep deep down, I was worried something had gone terribly wrong during the whole meiosis thing and, as a result, I would be giving birth to a dragon. I had it all worked out: there I’d be at the hospital, in labor, surrounded by a few nurses and my OB and of course, el husbandio. Except on that final push, instead of happy cries of, “It’s a boy/girl!” the entire room would fall silent. And then there would be some sort of snurfle sound, an odd snorting, fire-breathing sound. And in that shocked silence as everyone stared at the dragon that lay, blinking and snurfling in one of those flannel swaddling blankets I like to steal from the hospital after having a baby, I would know that I had given birth to a dragon. One with a pointy tail and huge wings, just like in my dreams.

Sister listened to all this, and then, instead of telling me I was being silly, instead of making jokes or calling medical professionals, she asked, “Well, Sari . . . are the dragon’s wings beautiful?”

Ah, sweet Sister. My sister is a musician, an artist, a poet and a gardener. Oh yes, and a maker of homemade sourdough. She creates for the sake of creating, and often what she creates does not fit into tidy categories. Her music is hard to describe, even harder to label. Her art and poetry, equally tricky to define. But are her art and her music beautiful? Without a doubt. She allows whatever is inside her to pour right out, not worrying about whether it will appeal to a mass audience, whether it can be labeled, for marketing purposes, as “My art is Lada Gaga meets MC Escher.” I love that about her. She is true to her art.

As it turns out, I did not give birth to a dragon. I gave birth to a human boy, then twenty months later, a human girl. Yet, as I learned this weekend at a writers’ conference, my book-baby, BETWEEN THE SUN AND THE ORANGES, does not fit into a tidy, “It’s a boy! It’s a girl!” package. It seems there is no clean, clear way to label my book.

When a human mother learns she has given birth to a dragon, I imagine it’s a little hard at first, scary even, to readjust to a different future than the one she had imagined. But as she readjusts, she comes to accept her child. She finds a good playgroup for dragons. Then she settles on a school with a dragon-friendly inclusion program. She spends the next few decades teaching her child that just because he’s a dragon, doesn’t mean he can’t play baseball or be on the debate team or go to college and join a fraternity.

But. When an author gives birth to a book that, like a dragon-baby, doesn’t fit into a defined market, well, my friends, that’s a publishing nightmare. And with this economy, agents and publishers are nightmare-adverse. Understandably, they want to know target audience, and it has to hit that target audience squarely on the head. Otherwise, it’s no-go. Oh no!

So here I am. I have a novel with a teenage narrator. Yet it’s not as hot and edgy as much of the current Young Adult that’s flying off the shelves. Where’s the teen pregnancy? Where’s the anorexia? Where, in God’s name, are the vampires/zombies/shape-shifters? To make matters worse, my novel is set in 1984, which, as I learned this weekend from a lovely and talented agent, makes my book historical fiction. And teenagers do not want historical fiction. Teenagers like to live in the moment; they like to read about the moment too.

But, many agents and publishers are equally reluctant to publish a teenage narrator as adult literary fiction. So what is my book? And what is my goal? If I make it a bit more friendly to a YA audience, can I do so without cramming the story into an ill-fitting box? Or, if I tailor it to fit into Hot Contemporary YA, will it still be the same story? Isn’t there a small but important group of teenagers who wants to read about a quirky 14-year-old trying to create a mathematical equation that will help her understand Love? Even if she’s living in 1984 and believes the word, “text” is only a noun? Gosh, I hope so.

On the other hand, there is a large group of adults who is enjoying the treat of YA. Take The Hunger Games, for example, (thank you, Audrey R.). Might there be a group of adults who wants to read a novel about a quirky kid set in 1984? Gosh, I hope so.

So. I have decided that what is most important, at least right now, rather than labeling my book, is that I find an agent who adores my narrator and my story as much as I do, one who believes a book can be sold and aimed at more than one audience. And then? We go for it, marketing the heck out of the novel, publicizing to what might end up being groups of quirky teens and groups of quirky adults. That agent is out there . . . looking to take my untraditional dragon-baby out into the world and set it gently into the hands of readers. Right? Gosh, I hope so.

  1. Agents, editors, and even publishers are not always right about who buys books. If they were, publishing would be a simple matter of fact and analysis. Clearly, this is not the case!

    Readers buy books that speak to them. Your book has a strong voice, and a captivating protagonist. Onward!

  2. From a Quirky Adult/Aspiring Author to a Dragon-Birthing Author of Strong Voice and Immense Potential, I say this: you are right to shop around for the right agent. As switching religions solely to impress/lure/trap your current lover would be… unwise, to say the least, so would switching genres and target audiences over and over. You know your narrator… and it sounds like she has a story to share all on her own. You can do this!!

  3. My favorite books are those written for 8-14-year-olds. Roald Dahl, Madeleine L’Engle, JK Rowling, Judy Blume — these are the books that I keep going back to as the years move forward, and I appreciate them all the more the older I get. I hope you find a publisher soon so I can get my hands on a copy of your book!

  4. I have complete confidence that there will be an editor/publishing house out there for you and changing your novel would be a mistake. You are brilliant writer with undying passion for this book. I for one will be the first in line to read your masterpiece and please don’t hold it against me that I love the “Twilight” books!

  5. Right on! I agree with all comments above. Don’t change your story! As we all have said, you are a talented writer who has a strong voice. And I too believe there is an agent out there for you who will be a perfect fit!

  6. Sarah, deep down I still am quirky 14 year old. (And not even that deep down, according to my husband.) There are many like me – teenagers back in the olden days – that love a young narrator. Catcher in the Rye is my favorite book. How would it be labeled today? You will find the right agent and then your book will have the label of “Published” and “Favorite”.

  7. Oh, how I appreciate all of your thoughts, favorite titles, support and cheerleading. One of my most favorite books ever is Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell, narrated by 13-year-old, stuttering Jason Taylor, a British kid who writes poetry and has brushes with both popularity and social dystopia. And that’s for adults. It will be interesting to see how this all pans out. Regardless, I am grateful for your thoughts. I think deep down MANY of us are still geeky 14-year-olds; only these days, we’re much more OK with embracing that. Thanks, all.

  8. What a great blog entry. I love how you started and where you ended up. And, from all I’ve heard you read of your novel, it is very well written with a character who I wanted to read more and more. Labels be damned indeed!

  9. I just kept thinking as I was reading about your pre-natal dragon anxiety, that you, my friend, are a much better person than I. Had I given birth to a dragon, I would not be searching out dragon baby support groups. I would donate it to the new Harry Potter theme park or something and pretend it never happened.

    • That’s actually what I would have done too . . . you just aren’t allowed to admit that in blooooooogs. CPS officials scan blogs, you know. Miss you! s

  10. You are awesome. The publishers don’t know what they’re missing. I will buy your book. This year I read CHAINS with sophomores who are struggling readers and they ate it up. You probably know this, but the narrator is a slave girl who tries to escape during the Revolutionary War — now if that ain’t ancient history to a group of kids born in 1995, I don’t know what is. I think they’re tired of teen pregnancy and anorexia and vampires too (okay, not really about the vampires), but keep at it, sister! My students will love your book!

  11. I have several YA books on my shelf and some of my favorite books over the last few years have been YA. The Hunger Games and The Book Thief are two that come to mind. You’ll find an editor who will love your narrator and her story. And I for one am one quirky adult who can’t wait to read your book.

  12. Sara, I’ve got to say, you’re one hell of a writer! I’ve got tons of students (high school) who would be into the quirkiness of what you’re talking about, particularly since I assume it’s written with the same brilliant clarity of voice that you write here. And forget the teens–I read YA stuff all the time!

    PS: Hope I’ll see you next weekend @ the reunion!

    • You’re so kind, Andrea. Thanks for the thoughtful note and encouragement. Yes, I’ll be at the reunion and look forward to catching up with you! 🙂

  13. Great blog, Sarah. If I didn’t already know you, I be thinking, “Dang, why don’t I know more funny people like this?”

  14. The problem with blogs is that these beautiful gems get archived so quickly. I wish there were a way for each of these posts to have its own prominent place in the spotlight for more than just a few days. When you get your author website up and running (soon maybe?) then perhaps you could put a blurb/link to each of these posts so there would be multiple ways to access them besides just scrolling through? Your writing is just so beautiful. Sigh.

    At least now I’ve email-subscribed so I won’t miss anything new. Phew!

  15. Hey Sarah, welcome to the blogosphere. If after a reasonably sufficient amount of time of being rejected by publishers that don’t want to risk it on an awesome book (I’m assuming, but I’m sure it’s good) you could always try the internet route. The internet has everything and doesn’t reject anything because “it might not sell well”. It’s not always about the money after all.

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