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How Writing Jennifer Strange (Quite Literally) Saved my Life, a guest post by Cat Scully

I did not know that I was dying.

In early summer of 2018, all of my symptoms pointed to bronchitis, or at worst, a particularly bad case of pneumonia. You see, people in their early thirties aren’t thinking about heart failure. It doesn’t even enter their possibility radar while typing their symptoms into Google one more time.

It started with a map. At the time, I had just come off designing dozens and dozens of different maps since Labor Day weekend, which bled through the fall months, barreled right on through the winter holidays, and spilled over into spring. Then, around mid-May, I received a map note from the author and publisher I couldn’t read. I tried to process it over and over, but the words melted every time I tried to read them. I had been fighting a terrible cold, coughing and sneezing and unable to breathe, so my husband carted me off to the doctor I had stubbornly refused to visit until the map was done. Gotta keep pushing, I thought. I can rest when I’m done.

The urgent care took a look at my symptoms and assessed it was bronchitis, gave me the typical prescriptions, and sent me home. Weeks went by with no relief. I finished the map but my husband had to read aloud every email that came across my inbox. I was tired, I thought. Why weren’t the pills working?

Smash-cut forward to the middle of June, and I’m face down on the floor of the shower unable to lift my head. I have to instruct my six-year-old son how to work my phone to call my husband at his office and tell him to come home. We fled to the hospital, both children in tow, and the ER nurses took one look at my CAT scan and confirmed their worst fears – I had heart failure. My heart was floating at around ten percent, and it wouldn’t be until weeks later in a genetic counseling session in Boston I would find out I had a genetic mutation prone to enlarging the heart when triggered by severe stress. I thought it had to be a joke. How could someone in their early thirties in possession of a health file so thin people had trouble finding it suddenly get heart failure?

I spent two weeks in the hospital removing sixteen pounds of fluid and wrestling with the fact I still wasn’t published. I had written a grand total of three novels over the course of five years. The first was sent to a publisher and my agent and I were waiting to hear back. I rested up, convinced I wouldn’t let my dream of publishing be pushed aside again. Three days after returning home, I got the call. The editor loved Jennifer Strange and wanted to publish it next year. I cried, maybe harder than I’ve ever cried. After five years, three agents, a slew of rejections, and almost dying, I was getting published. I couldn’t have known then what would happen when I sat down to write again. Symptoms in young women with heart failure aren’t as well documented as cases in eighty-year-old men. I didn’t know what was coming.

Jennifer Strange

After a few painful weeks of learning how to walk and a new salt-less diet focused on shrinking my heart, I sat down to the computer. It felt good to open my book with the knowledge it was finally going to print. As soon as I opened the file, the words floated into each other again, and the space between letters squashed and collapsed in lava lamp waves. I couldn’t read. It seemed back then an impossible thought, not being able to read. A writer writes. A reader reads. I was an author with a book getting published, not someone who struggled to connect sentences together. I closed my laptop. I thought all I needed was a little more time. It took months of processing and a dear friend telling me the work was basically illegible for me to finally face the truth—It wasn’t just that I couldn’t read. My mind could not connect the letters to the memories of what those words meant. 

We pushed back the book by another year, with everyone hopeful one more year of healing would help. I was the only one not convinced. I sat listening to audiobooks, wishing and hoping I could write again. It wasn’t until late 2019 that my heart improved enough to write again, and my symptoms of memory loss lessened enough to string together a sentence. Reading was a slow and painful process requiring total concentration without any interruption of sound or kids yelling for yet another packet of fruit snacks. I had to work at reading again, the same way I had to learn how to walk and then run and then jog on a treadmill.

Every revision of Jennifer Strange got easier, and by the time we got to producing the advanced reader copies, it still wasn’t perfect. I kept learning how to read as I pushed through posting on Netgalley and then sending more focused drafts each time through multiple revisions between my launch of early copies to July of my publication date. As of writing this blog post, my heart is at forty-five percent, healed enough I can sit and read a book, though interruption requires up to an hour of recovery to be able to read again.

I never thought I’d have to relearn how to read to publish a book, and I think even beyond Jennifer Strange as I move into book two in the series, my memory and ability will only improve. It seems to every week. This desire to write, to publish, and then repeat is a quest worth pursuing. Despite everything, I think having this book and my fierce desire to finally see it in print, flaws and all, healed my heart and saved my life all at once. It’s worth it to keep going, despite all the downfalls and weird left turns. I still have to read my books aloud, and audio books are easier than reading physical copies, but I found a method that works in a world post-heart failure. Ultimately, that’s all that matters.

I want to share my story not to scare, but to inspire writers who might be questioning if going forward is worth it after yet another rejection letter. The quest to publish is worth packing your bags and journeying out your front door into the great unknown. Jennifer Strange saved me, and I hope you find that your book might save you too.

Meet Cat Scully

Cat Scully is the author and illustrator of the young adult illustrated horror novel series JENNIFER STRANGE, with the first book releasing July 21, 2020, from Haverhill House Publishing. Cat is best known for her world maps featured in Brooklyn Brujas trilogy by Zoraida Cordova, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, and Give the Dark My Love by Beth Revis. She works in video game development for the Deep End Games, working hard on their next title. After five years as a mentor in Pitch Wars for middle grade and young adult fiction, she is a core editor for Cornerstones Literary, focusing on editing speculative fiction for adult, young adult, and middle-grade markets. She lives off Earl Grey tea, plays a lot of Bioshock, is a huge Evil Dead fan, and plays the drums with her musician husband. She lives outside of Boston and is represented by Miriam Kriss of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency.​

About Jennifer Strange

Jennifer Strange

Fifteen-year-old Jennifer Strange is the Sparrow, cursed with the ability to give ghosts and demonic spirits a body-a flesh and blood anchor in the mortal world-with the touch of her hand. When a ghost attacks her high school and awakens her powers, her father dumps her unceremoniously in the care of her estranged older sister Liz, leaving only his journal as an explanation.

Drawn to the power of the Sparrow, the supernatural creatures preying on Savannah, Georgia will do anything to receive Jennifer’s powerful gift. The sisters must learn to trust each other again and uncover the truth about their family history by deciphering their father’s journal…because if they can’t, Jennifer’s uncontrolled power will rip apart the veil that separates the living from the dead.

A fast-paced and splattery romp, fans of Supernatural, Buffy, and Evil Dead will enjoy JENNIFER STRANGE – the first illustrated novel in a trilogy of stylish queer young adult horror books with big scares for readers not quite ready for adult horror.

Cat Scully’s illustrations bring the ghosts and demons of her fictional world to eerie and beautiful life, harkening back to the style of SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK and Ransom Riggs’ MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN.

ISBN-13: 9781949140064
Publisher: Haverhill House Publishing LLC
Publication date: 07/20/2020
Series: Jennifer Strange #1
Age Range: 13 – 18 Years

Continuing Anti-Racist Work in Publishing in the Wake of the George Floyd Protests, a guest post by Roseanne A. Brown

Being a Black debut is weird right now.

Being Black right now is weird. And being a debut right now is weird. But being both? Being both is a whole new level of weirdness I did not know it was possible to achieve.

My debut novel A Song of Wraiths and Ruin came out on June 2nd, and like most writers with spring/summer releases this year, I spent the months before coming to terms with the reality that the launch I had dreamed of for years would not be possible in the wake of COVID-19. As disappointing as it was, the health and safety of my community mattered more.

But then June 2nd itself arrived. A Song of Wraiths and Ruin came out on a day when the world was gripped in the throes of some of the largest scale protests we’ve seen since MLK was assassinated. The unjust killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police marked a turning point in the conversation on racial injustice, and institutions around the globe are still reckoning with what it means to not only be non-racist, but anti-racist in the face of centuries of subjugation and oppression of Black people.

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown

In the publishing world, this looked like a push to highlight books by Black authors that might have otherwise gotten lost in the chaos. The people of the publishing community, lead by amazing Black women writers, came together to create a Black Tuesday to ensure that my book, A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow, You Should See Me In a Crown by Leah Johnson, and several other books by Black authors that released on June 2nd were not forgotten. Posts went up, the books went out of stock across multiple retailers, and everyone from authors to booksellers to publishers and beyond reaffirmed their commitments to amplifying Black voices in our industry.

I have zero complaints about the reception ASOWAR has gotten. Seeing readers connect with these characters I’ve loved for years has been a highlight of my career. But I am curious to see how the commitment to amplifying Black voices will continue now that Black Lives Matter is no longer trending and people’s feeds have gone back to normal.

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) recently released the 2019 figures for the yearly report they compile on the state of diversity in children’s literature, and the numbers are simply appalling. Out of the 3,716 books that the CCBC received, there were more books about animals than there were books about children of color. Of the measly 11.9% of books that featured Black/African protagonists, less than half were actually written by Black/African authors.

We Need Diverse Books has been a fixture in the industry since 2014, and the movement for more inclusive children’s media has brought hundreds of wonderful books into the world that are going to change young reader’s lives for the better. But the numbers make it clear that the work is far from over, and now—when the world feels like it’s ending and the future is murkier than it has ever been—now is the time to ramp up our efforts instead of pulling back.

Buying books by Black authors is a great start, but the work to elevate and amplify Black voices cannot end there. As a community, we need to be pushing Black voices front and center when there isn’t a national tragedy happening. We need to be listening to these voices even when the truths they are saying are uncomfortable to hear. We need to make sure that Black and other IPOC publishing professionals at all levels have the support and mentorship they need to continue putting out books of anti-racism and radical Black joy.

In the weeks since Black Tuesday, several organizations that committed to doing better by Black writers and employees have proved that their environments are still unsafe for the very people they claim to support. The same Black writers people were clamoring to support a few weeks ago have been silenced and harassed as they continue to speak up about racist practices in the industry.

Being anti-racist is going to take more than a few weeks of hyping certain books and creating aesthetic Instagram posts. It’s going to take a fundamental shifting in the way we all view and interact with the world. It’s going to take interrogating the way each and everyone of us has allowed the structures of this industry to function unjustly for so long.

The work does not and cannot end with buying a copy of a Black author’s book or even blacking out an entire bestseller list, though that is an excellent start. The work will end when Black and other marginalized voices are no longer working in this industry at a structural disadvantage. And it’s going to take every single one of us at every level of the publishing hierarchy to make sure this change stays for good.

We all need to keep showing up for Black voices and Black lives, even when it’s no longer on trend to do so.

Meet Roseanne A. Brown

Photo credit: Ashley Hirasuna

Rosanne A. Brown is an immigrant from the West African nation of Ghana and a graduate of the University of Maryland, where she completed the Jimenez-Porter Writers’ House program. Her work has been featured by Voice of America, among other outlets. A Song of Wraiths and Ruin is her debut novel.

You can visit her online at 

Website: roseanneabrown.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/rosiesrambles

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/rosiesrambles/

Roseanne suggests getting her book from her local indie, Books With a Past.

About A Song of Wraiths and Ruin

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown

The first in a gripping fantasy duology inspired by West African folklore in which a grieving crown princess and a desperate refugee find themselves on a collision course to murder each other despite their growing attraction—from debut author Roseanne A. Brown. This New York Times bestseller is perfect for fans of Tomi Adeyemi, Renée Ahdieh, and Sabaa Tahir.

For Malik, the Solstasia festival is a chance to escape his war-stricken home and start a new life with his sisters in the prosperous desert city of Ziran. But when a vengeful spirit abducts his younger sister, Nadia, as payment to enter the city, Malik strikes a fatal deal—kill Karina, Crown Princess of Ziran, for Nadia’s freedom.

But Karina has deadly aspirations of her own. Her mother, the Sultana, has been assassinated; her court threatens mutiny; and Solstasia looms like a knife over her neck. Grief-stricken, Karina decides to resurrect her mother through ancient magic . . . requiring the beating heart of a king. And she knows just how to obtain one: by offering her hand in marriage to the victor of the Solstasia competition.

When Malik rigs his way into the contest, they are set on a heart-pounding course to destroy each other. But as attraction flares between them and ancient evils stir, will they be able to see their tasks to the death?

ISBN-13: 9780062891495
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/02/2020
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

Why That Book Isn’t in the Library; or, no starting your own small press isn’t always the answer to diversity

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Earlier this week, The New York Times posted an article about sensitivity readers that prompted a heated discussion on Twitter. Because of the holidays I didn’t follow all of the conversations happening, though I did see that author Joyce Carol Oates suggested that historically marginalized authors start their own small presses and literary magazines to help fill the gap.

Besides the fact that this is being done, I recognized immediately what a huge problem this suggestion is, mainly because I know how books get in to our libraries. So let me explain to you why an author starting their own small press won’t help the problem of not enough diversity in publishing from a library perspective.

A library is a business, it’s a non-profit business but it is still a business. So like any business, we have processes and rules and regulations. In fact, because libraries involve spending public money, we are heavily regulated. In the state of Ohio, for example, we are regularly audited by state auditors and we have to be able to show where all of our monies were spent and that we followed all of the rules and regulations. Buying books for the public library is not the same as buying books for your home, there are a variety of rules and processes in place and, unfortunately, they often put small and independent presses at a huge disadvantage when it comes to buying books for our school and public libraries.

Vendors

Most libraries work with specific vendors. This involves POs, which we will talk about in a moment, and vast discounts. Vendors like Baker and Taylor, Ingram and Follett allow libraries to purchase large quantities of books at a steep discount, making our dollars stretch farther. These vendors specialize in library distribution so they have built targeted programs that make putting together large book orders quick and easy. They work with librarians to develop interfaces and do things like built specific carts, find professional reviews in one place, and download catalog records. And I mentioned the discounts, right? The discounts are just as important as the technology. Many libraries will only buy books through their vendor. If a book isn’t offered by the vendor being used by the library, then it can’t be purchased. A lot of small press titles are not distributed by vendors, so being published by one of the big publishing houses eliminates a HUGE stumbling block to getting a book on the shelves of the local public and school library.

Purchase Orders

In every library I have worked at, you have to have a purchase order approved by administration before you can make a purchase. And in many libraries, you can only get a purchase order from a set of pre-approved vendors. Some libraries will approve purchase orders for a local brick and mortar store or for an online retailer like Barnes and Noble or Amazon, but some will not. This depends on the local library and their fiscal officer. The necessity of POs presents yet another stumbling block for getting small and independently published titles into our public libraries.

Catalog Records

Every book that comes into the library must be cataloged. Many libraries used to have large technical services departments that spent the time cataloging each and every book that comes into the library. But as library budgets shrank and technology changed, the cataloging process has changed as well. Today, most libraries purchase the catalog records through the vendor and do very little original cataloging. So for a title to be added to the collection, it has to have a catalog record. I sound like a broken record at this point, but again, this is a stumbling block for small and independently published titles.

Positive Professional Reviews

Public and school libraries often face material challenges. This means that a member of the public objects to having a particularly title in the local library. In order to help address any potential material challenges, libraries go through the process of developing concrete collection development policies and materials challenge procedures. Every library has a policy in place for their book selectors and they often will state that a book must have at least one and sometimes two positive professional reviews before a title can be purchased. Please note it is always professional reviews, which usually means from a professional review journal like School Library Journal, Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus or Booklist. Blogs, Goodreads, etc. typically don’t count as professional reviews. This need for professional reviews again means it is harder for a small or independently published title to get even in front of the eyes of a selector, let alone past one of the gate-keeping measures that libraries must use to build their collections.

With the growth of small and independently published titles, some libraries have taken steps to help incorporate these titles into their local libraries, but not all. Not a lot, in fact. Many libraries will take donations of small and independently published titles by local authors and build local author collections, but this doesn’t help book sales and it doesn’t help get authors on the shelves. And we can debate whether or not these are good policies on the part of libraries for days, but the reality is that libraries have to have operating procedures, they have to be accountable for public monies spent, and they have a responsibility to get the most bank for their buck to best serve their local communities. This need must be balanced with the need to build inclusive collections and provide access, but the reality is that for a lot of library systems, small and independent presses are hard to incorporate into their purchasing routines.

Small and independent presses are a possible solution to help solve the lack of diversity and inclusion in publishing, but they are not the only answer and if we want to help libraries build more inclusive collections, they aren’t the best answer. The truth is that this lack of diversity in publishing is a systemic, multi-faceted problem that needs to be addressed in a variety of ways. One of those ways is that we need for the big publishing houses to start publishing more diverse and inclusive titles. Big publishing houses have done the work of building up marketing and distribution channels, they have the funds to promote the titles, and they have systems in place to get those titles in front of the largest number of eyes possible to start changing the world. Starting your own small press is great, but it has to have the time to be nurtured and developed, and it has to have the funds. I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from starting their own press or literary magazine if that is what they want to do, but that isn’t the right answer to the question of how do we help make our public libraries more diverse today.