• Kacen Callender

WIP: Random Thoughts!

This is a very random post, jumping from topic to topic. I’ve been learning to embrace my neurodivergent ways more and more, so I’m not even mad about it. But so you know what will be further down: some additional thoughts on social media expectations and publishing; thoughts on a phrase I've often heard, "I don't know why it took me so long to read this book" (spoiler alert: racism); and I talk about a YA contemporary I'm currently drafting.

First: I’m so blown-away by the response for last week’s blog! Thanks to everyone who responded. I knew I wasn’t alone in those feelings, but I didn’t know just how much so many people felt the same way. Another quick but important bit I forgot to add into that post: publishers and various accounts also decide how many books the title will sell beforehand with estimated print-runs. So, yeah. If a publisher gives a print run of 1,000 copies for Book A versus 100,000 copies for Book B, they’re going to put more effort into marketing the title with 100,000 copies to make sure those books actually sell. Relying on the author of Book A to sell their title on their own online ultimately saves publishers energy and money to focus on making Book B a success. And since we know our futures as authors depend on whether our books will sell copies, many of us feel forced to become marketing experts. We shouldn’t have to, but we all understand the self-fulfilling prophecy of publishers deciding not to market/publicize books because they don’t think the title will sell very many copies. If they don’t put the effort into selling the book—well, it won’t sell. Which damages the author’s backlist sales, which determines whether we will sell our books to publishers in the future…

I’m really curious to know what the industry would be like if authors received healthcare and a set minimum of marketing and publicity each title should receive to ensure the book will actually sell, so that many authors’ careers aren’t being set up to fail. I mean, I've heard stories of authors paying their way to go to conventions and literally begging the publishing company to let them stand next to the imprint's stall to sell their own books that they brought with their own money, and being told no. How many incredible, life-changing books are being lost into the void? I’m even more curious to know what publishing would be like if every author received a set advance, nixing these auctions where books sell for millions of dollars, which helps to rid us of this celebrity culture that really drives a lot of the capitalistic ideals most of us don't like about the industry, and of course also sucks the budget from the company, allowing every book to receive the same level of marketing and publicity… Especially given the results of the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag, with unknown white authors being paid much more than beloved authors of color. Would that level the playing field for books’ potential success? Hmmm. Food for thought.

Anyway! I’d originally sat down to write about the second topic. I’ve been tagged in many reviews (an entirely different topic on its own, but I won’t talk about that today), and one thing that has come up more than a few times, for all of my titles, is the phrase: I don’t know why it took me so long to read this book.

To be blunt: yeah, you do. I know why it took you so long to read my books, too. I don’t want to focus a lot of energy into racism in publishing right now, but I would like for there to at least be more of a self-awareness with reader bias. And I would like, even more, to not have salt sprinkled on the wound of already traumatizing racism with a phrase that 1) suggests surprise that the book is good/better than you expected it would be, likely also because of reader bias and racism; and 2) feels like an attempt at naïve innocence to clear the conscience for why you had zero interest in reading books with Black characters until enough people told you it was good enough to read and/or because it won an award.

My intention isn’t to focus attention on my books in particular, but to look closely at just one of the small, insidious ways racism creeps in to affect the lives and mental health of Black authors. Reader bias is just one of those things that, as a Black person, you know is there, but you can’t really prove it or do very much about it.

I would like readers to consider their reader bias and why it is that they aren’t interested in books with Black characters until 1) someone announces that it’s good enough to read, 2) the community decides it’s “the” book to read to show that you’re an ally, and 3) why you feel the need to morally clear yourself with the innocent “I don’t know why.” At least acknowledging with self-awareness that you do know why—we all know why—will start us on the right path to fixing reading bias. Acknowledging that you don’t want to read a book with Black main characters because you were taught that our stories don’t matter or because you don’t care about Black people and so won’t care about Black characters is a starting point to healing that racism, the shame you want to hide with “I don’t know why” and allowing for actual growth and change. And, I mean… Maybe cut out the "I don’t know why it took be so long to read this book" from reviews.

Yeah. That’s all the energy I can give to racism today.

I’m writing a book that discusses the trauma of racism, of being born into a world that’s already designed against you, already hates you, and the miracle and power in still finding love and joy and being able to find space for ourselves to be vulnerable, even knowing we are hated by so many, and allow true connection with one another. It’s everything I wish I’d had as a teen: showing the little ways this world tells us we’re not good enough to be loved. Showing that we are enough to be loved—every single one of us. Showing how to heal those traumas so that we never have to suppress ourselves for the comfort of others.

This brings me to topic number three: this book is so hard to write! I think it’s because I’m grappling with so much. I can’t give the details just yet, but for this one, I started out with a clear theme in my mind: basically, it was inspired by the double standards Black people face, and how as protection we often have to become perfectionists, trying to prove to everyone that we are worthy of love by being the best, and we have to become people pleasers, because if we don’t please the people around us then we’re doubly punished as Black people.

I wrote the beginning of the book based on this theme, but the more I wrote, the more the theme continued to expand. I started to look at how perfectionism and people pleasing affects this age of social media, and why it is that we need to wear masks (ha, unintentional pun, ugh) to prove that we’re literally worthy of love, i.e.: number of likes under our posts—and how this affects teens, especially Black teens with intersectional identities. I began to look at how conversations on social media can be so confusing when discussing accountability versus shame, and how people really do engage in shaming online a lot, which is then called out as bullying, but this is often mixed in with the people who are asking for accountability and change, which is then mistaken for bullying—and is it really okay to shame others for their mistakes?

Oh, well—that just opened a theme of making mistakes and toxic behavior, and how each and every one of us is toxic to some capacity, and how each and every one of us needs to heal and grow. And so, the theme (currently) has expanded into the very broad category of: healing.

I’ve learned quickly that the broader the theme, the more threads there are, the more subplots that need to be woven together—and the more plot points, the more scenes. This book is already becoming a beast of a novel at 60K words, and I don’t even know if I’m truly halfway done yet. So much of it feels important and relevant, and whenever I re-read what I’ve written I feel pulled in by the tension of internal confusion and anxiety and people who want to do better, to stop making mistakes, but not always knowing how, and being afraid to take accountability, and the agony in just wanting to connect with other people in a vulnerable way. It feels so real and honest, and it’s been healing for me to write, too. But, damn. It’s hard. Really, really hard. Probably the second-hardest book I’ve written, the first being a middle-grade I can’t talk about just yet either but will hopefully be able to get into soon.

My writing process generally changes with every book I write, and it’s taken me a while to find a good flow with this book’s process, but I think I’ve now landed on having a list of plot points, beats that need to happen to move the story along, but not actually knowing what’s going to happen in the scene to make those beats happen until I start writing. This allows for creativity to come in. The characters surprise me, say things I wouldn’t have expected them to say. Characters become different from what I was imagining and form their own relationships. Sometimes this makes the plot points change, too, but it’s been worth it every time.

I’m really curious to know what the ultimate form will be. Maybe I’ll need to streamline from the theme of healing in general, to pick a few of the themes that have stronger plot threads. Maybe this will just be a really long contemporary YA novel, and that's okay, too. I don’t know yet. Not knowing is both scary and exciting. I know I'm going to enjoy looking back at this blog post when the book is done and out in the world.

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