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.