Monday, October 12, 2009

A WISH AFTER MIDNIGHT by Zetta Elliott

I've been reading about A WISH AFTER MIDNIGHT for months on the internet, and finally received my copy last week. Just finished reading it. I will state up front that I have met Ms. Elliott, broken bread with her, and am biased in that I think she is a warm, wonderful person. But I had never read her work (other than on her blog), and had no idea whether I would connect with it. I was certainly intrigued by this woman who spoke her mind on the internet, was a fellow Canadian, and had the (excuse me) balls to go ahead and publish (and then promote the crud out of) her own book. I had so, so many thoughts as I read A WISH AFTER MIDNIGHT and I will do my best to get them all out here.

My first thought was: WOW. What beautiful, strong writing. As I read, I knew, without a doubt, that I was in capable hands. Elliott was leading me through this journey, and she was clearly a pro. During the first third of the novel, through steady pacing and carefully revealed moments, I learned to care deeply about Genna, the protagonist. She had her heart wide open and she questioned things, challenged what was simply accepted by others in her life, and loved completely and fully, in a pure, unmarred way.

I thought, too, about my experience with agents and wondered if, had an agent taken Elliott and WISH on, would they have had her snip and cut that first third so that it was "tighter," went more quickly to the action-packed portion, or simply notched up the pace? It seems that in today's highly competitive market, authors are urged to slam the reader in the first thirty pages--to grab them by the jugular and not let go. My husband tells me there is a similar rule in film--that within the first fifteen minutes, something has to "happen" to rivet the viewer to their seat. Likewise, in writing, agents know that editors have mountains of manuscripts to read, and that if a manuscript doesn't grab them within the first ten, twenty, thirty pages, they may stop reading. So, those first thirty pages are critical in an author's professional life. This seems to be the conventional wisdom imparted in writing workshops, blogs, crit groups, etc.

But what about the novels that simmer? The ones that build slowly, laying a wide foundation? That's how pyramids are built--the wider the base, the higher the peak. What of those novels that take the time to lay a wide, sprawling base, so that they may carry the reader to the greatest heights of understanding, of learning, of insight? What of those novels in this competitive, crowded, slam-them-fast market?

So many of the novels I read as a teen, as a young woman, and then later in life, were those quieter ones, the ones with the steady, sure pace, leading purposefully to a most satisfying, unexpected climax. Those are the ones that have stayed with me. They are the ones I turn to over and over again, leaf through and find something new in each time--the ones I continue to cherish. Please note that I am not detracting from the novels that grab the reader in the first few chapters. I've loved plenty of those, as well. I'm just saying that there has to be room to value both. The first third of WISH is the quieter, measured pace of creating a wide base. Though it doesn't pack the gut-wrenching wallop of the second half (and, wow, does that second half pack a punch), it is a gradual, lyrical reveal that is skillfully, artfully written. The reader gets to know Genna the way she wants to be known--the way all solid relationships are woven: through small steps that build trust.

As Justine Larbalesteir wrote in her review of WISH, it is a crying shame that not a single editor, publisher, or agent out there saw the brilliance in A WISH AFTER MIDNIGHT. It amazed me that no one had the foresight or vision to see that, if nothing else, Elliott could easily have been marketed as a young Octavia Butler. There were definitely shades of KINDRED on my mind as I read, particularly the second third of the novel.

But their loss is Ms. Elliott's gain. She took her destiny into her own hands and put her words out into the world. And the world is responding. WISH is selling like hotcakes. It is finding its readers and creating its own magic. It is doing what true, powerful art does: it is living. It is breathing and opening doors and windows, and wriggling into the minds and hearts of readers -- readers who are often shut out of the mainstream publishing mansion. And it is finding wide, enthusiastic support among teachers, librarians, booksellers, bloggers, and other thinking folks who want something more, something deeper, than what mass marketing hype is selling.

Ms. Elliott's story of bringing WISH to print is an inspiration. Her feisty determination and refusal to back down in the face of tremendous odds are what have given A WISH AFTER MIDNIGHT the large wingspan it has. I was so immersed in Genna and Judah's story that I keep forgetting I've finished it. Their world is still alive within me. Their voices, and their love, are still on my mind. I want to crawl back under the covers and slide seamlessly back into their story.

I keep wondering how many other books out there, like WISH, could make an important contribution to the world and our understanding of it, but are not being published because someone thinks there is no market for them. Or that they won't sell. Or that other prevailing myth*: that because they are about PoC, written by an author of colour, they fit a "niche" market and very few people are interested in reading them.

I can not wait for the sequel, JUDAH'S TALE. And thank whatever that Ms. Elliott didn't wait for someone to decide her work was worth publishing. In the next week or so, I will post an audio converview** with the author, asking her about her experience writing and publishing WISH.  Stay tuned for that.

But in the meantime, go buy WISH. Read it, and see for yourself what all the fuss is about. You can learn more about Zetta Elliott on her website or on her blog.


*Justine Larbalestier wrote about this when addressing the issue of her original LIAR cover: "The notion that “black books” don’t sell is pervasive at every level of publishing. Yet I have found few examples of books with a person of colour on the cover that have had the full weight of a publishing house behind them...Until that happens more often we can’t know if it’s true that white people won’t buy books about people of colour. All we can say is that poorly publicised books with “black covers” don’t sell. The same is usually true of poorly publicised books with 'white covers.' Are the big publishing houses really only in the business of selling books to white people? That’s not a very sustainable model if true."  
Mitali Perkins has also written extensively on race in kids' books. Her article in the School Library Journal, Straight Talk on Race: Challenging the Stereotypes in Kids Books is definitely worth a read.

**a cross between an interview and a conversation

10 comments:

Color Online said...

Neesha,

You write some of the best reviews. I'm so glad you reviewed Zetta's work. I almost jumped up from my seat screaming, "Yes!"

mayraldole said...

Neesha, this is one of the best reviews i've ever read. i agree about the slow simmer of Zetta's work and the grip she has on the English language. it's mind-boggling to think that an editor didn't consider her the Audrey Lorde or Octavia of our times...

your reviews make me want to read you. your writing is lyrical, liquid, lush...

ciao and Congrats on such a magnificent review.

Doret said...

This is wonderful and well deserved.

I think Zetta was very smart to take her time with the first part of the story. She wrote a YA novel with fantasy elements for an audience that supposedly doesn't read fantasy

Fantasy fan or not, Zetta makes the reader care about Genna and when she is taken to another world all the reader is going to want to do is stay with her.

I wonder if editors would have seen the importance of getting to know Genna in the present day.

And Neesha much congrats to you on your Cybils nod. Was happy to see Zetta got a nod as well. Very Sweet on both accounts.

Did did you vote? A Cybils vote is a terrible thing to waste, color it up
(by Oct 15) And if you're thinking Skunk girl think again - I've already voted for that.

Colleen said...

I had the same thought about the beginning of the book - I kept waiting for the time travel to happen as it is a time travel book and, well, you never spend so much time before the big plot point! But then I settled into the story and I got to care about the characters (and be very frustrated by the brother and sister) and love the park and on and on and so when the time travel did happen it had an even bigger jolt because the book, while dramatic, had been so normal until then that I didn't expect it.

In other words, it really worked the way Zetta wrote it and I liked the book a lot and I'm glad you liked it too!

zettaelliott said...

Thanks to Neesha and everyone else who has supported my book--it's so gratifying to know that organic writing still has a place in the world; you don't HAVE to turn your manuscript into a McBook that can be sold and gobbled down quickly...congrats on your Cybils nomination, Neesha, and thanks again for mine, Colleen!

Tockla said...

I agree, what a lyrical review. I will fess up, as a past-life editor, I wondered about the slow pace of the opening chapters. Had I read with pencil in hand, I might have commented on this. But you're right, that slower build establishes the characters so effectively, so even though I read this months ago, I can still remember Genna's life before the timeslip. And it shows that there are books, paces, approaches that can vary, and be for everyone. I just listened to the 'single story' video on Zetta's recent blog post, and I think it's related. There shouldn't be a single way to approach writing for young people. People love to read different kinds of books at all ages. AWAM is a special book, and certainly one that deserves wide coverage and distribution!
Laura Atkins

Neesha Meminger said...

Laura, I'm glad you weighed in. I suspect that some agents and editors might have stopped reading before even getting to Part Two. Such a pity because part two is so incredibly powerful.

This raises a question for me, though: I know for a fact that editors/agents will fall in love with a manuscript and take it on, even if it needs a LOT of work. Some authors have gone through *several* ground up revisions with their agents (like, massive overhauls in plot and characters), and then another major revision or two with their editors once the book is acquired.

It absolutely boggles my mind that none of the editors or agents queried for this book didn't snap it up, considering it hardly needed any work. The most I could see anyone complaining about would be the pacing in that first part. But even THEN, the writing is strong, the voice is believable and authentic, the characters are layered and multi-dimensional, the setting is *alive* . . . it is a solid, great story. I'm left shaking my head and thinking: wtf??

I don't believe that a book needs to be published by a large house in order for it to be "legitimate." But a lot of people do, and many books are kept out of certain awards and venues as a result (rightly so, I must say; I've read some terrible self-pubbed books). I am saddened, though, that the author now must work against that belief as she promotes her book--especially since, in my opinion, it should be up there with some of the most massively-hyped books coming out this year.

evelyn.n.alfred said...

Man, I can't wait to finish reading Zetta's book. I'm in part two, but got distracted by reading Orange Mint & Honey (and discussing it on Twitter). Your review makes me want to rush back to it.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

Great points about the first third of the book. I really liked the way Zetta established the character and voice of Genna, and I didn't think it was slow moving at all. I was just thrilled that Genna let me into her world and her dreams. Without that first part, the rest of the book wouldn't have had the same impact, because we wouldn't know Genna as well and we wouldn't have that grounding in present-day Brooklyn to contrast with the Brooklyn Genna found in 1863.

Neesha Meminger said...

@Lyn: "Without that first part, the rest of the book wouldn't have had the same impact, because we wouldn't know Genna as well and we wouldn't have that grounding in present-day Brooklyn to contrast with the Brooklyn Genna found in 1863."

Exactly. I also think that the measured, purposeful pacing of the first part is what makes the second part pack the punch that it does. When I was reading the beginning, I was hooked by Genna. I followed this terrific character through her life--meeting her family and the people in her community. I especially loved all the scenes with Judah. They were so tender and innocent in the midst of so much raw, hard living.

Then, when the second part came in, I literally could not put the book down. I know that's a cliche, but it's true. I was stirring pots on the stove with the book in one hand, as my kids tore up the other room. I simply HAD to know how Genna navigated this world she'd been dropped into.

But honestly? After I finished reading it, I stared at it for a while, wracking my brains for reasons any editor or agent would turn it down. And the only thing I could come up with (pacing in the beginning) just seemed so darn minor.

Very different reviewers, bloggers, librarians, booksellers, and Laura--an editor--agree that the book is great. Clearly, it has an audience. There's a market for it. It can be, and is becoming, both a commercial AND a literary success.

So again: mind-boggling.

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