A Big Announcement for TORCH!
Have you ever written a super-secret project, one you didn’t want to tell *anyone*? That was me, for years, as I worked on draft after draft of a weird, multi-POV YA historical novel for teens. I started the first draft in Portugal in May 2017, on the heels of the failed submissions of two separate written-and-revised YA novels, two middle grade proposals, and a half dozen picture books. I wrote this novel even though I believed it too strange and edgy to be published.
The novel begins with a suicide. One of the protagonists is on the autism spectrum but not diagnosed. Or misdiagnosed, in a place where psychiatry was routinely abused to silence those who stepped out of line. Despite calls for #ownvoices books, I pledged that I would never write another with an autistic protagonist, but here I was.
And here’s what just happened:
Shortly after I started the first draft, I came down with a serious eye infection and faced the possibility of becoming legally blind, as the infection was in the eye that doesn’t already have limited vision. An editor asked me for a revise and resubmit for my previous YA historical novel, so I set this secret project aside for several months while I revised. I asked myself if it made sense to devote more than a year to an unpublishable new project with time maybe running out for me. It made more sense for me to revise a manuscript where there was some interest, to travel more and focus on my travel writing. I planned to put together an e-guide to Portugal and was starting to write pieces for other sites.
But I couldn’t let the project go. One of the things that keeps me working on a first draft through uncertain beginnings and murky middles is not knowing how it turns out for my characters. I wanted to read to the end, which meant I had to write to the end. I also liked the way my three main characters — who didn’t know each other well (or at all) and only had their best friend in common — came together as a collective protagonist, with their survival dependent on the decisions each one of them made. When I finished the first draft, I was both proud that I’d made it to the end with most of my characters and sad because it felt like I was “closing the book” on them. With so many failed submissions already and this book the weirdest of them all, I despaired of finding a publisher.
As my eye healed, I sent the manuscript to several rounds of beta readers and started yet another new challenge — a verse novel. In the meantime, beta readers were getting back to me with both praise and suggestions. Their level of engagement seemed far higher than readers of past projects, and that encouraged me. (Pro tip: Any beta reader can flake, but if a high percentage of readers don’t get back to you, it’s probably a sign that a manuscript isn’t working. They may not be engaged enough to prioritize the reading, or feel they don’t have the skills to help you, or don’t want to be the bearer of bad news. If your project still speaks to you, this may be the moment for you to bring the manuscript to a workshop or pay an editor to work one-on-one with you.)
I rewrote multiple times. I used a developmental editor for the first time since my debut adult novel, when I was a total fiction newbie. I wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far as I did without the skills and insight of editor Bethany Simonsen. I changed my title, in part because a highly visible first volume of a YA fantasy series had a too-similar title and in part because Bethany felt my original title was too on-the-nose for the climactic scene. I rewrote again. My beginning went through more than 20 versions because it was that hard to get the first chapter right, with Pavol’s suicide and why he made the choice that he did.
When I finally sent the manuscript to my agent in January 2019, she told me it was the best thing of mine she’d ever read. Then she told me she was retiring. I cried for a day. I wavered between publishing the book myself through an authors’ collective, or looking for a new agent. I phoned a friend known for her wisdom, Cynthia Levinson, for advice, and she urged me to try the agent/submission route. All the work and tears paid off when Jacqui Lipton offered representation several months later, and after another revision which lopped 10,000 words from the manuscript, Amy Fitzgerald from Carolrhoda Lab shepherded the novel through the acquisitions process and sent me a contract. This is my first contract for a sole-authored book since Surviving Santiago sold to Running Press in April 2014, and I’m honored to be with Carolrhoda Lab, whose list includes some of my favorite YA titles including the unforgettable and award-winning historical novel Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez.
TORCH is the story of three teenagers facing terror and dwindling options for resisting it because they were born in a totalitarian land and their fight for freedom ended in defeat. Here in the United States, we are in the midst of a similar struggle to maintain the freedoms we’ve enjoyed and often taken for granted, and to guarantee those same freedoms to Black Americans whose lives have too often not mattered. And while the pandemic has caused the novel’s publication date to move from 2021 to 2022, I will now be able to talk about this book that means so much to me on so many levels. While the writing of it was an individual journey against the odds, the story is one of collective struggle for justice, liberty, and human rights for all — one inspired by the words of the Czech playwright and dissident Václav Havel:
Human rights are universal and indivisible. Human freedom is also indivisible. If it is denied to anyone in the world, it is therefore denied, indirectly, to all people. This is why we cannot remain silent in the face of evil or violence; silence merely encourages them.