My name is Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond and I’m the author of a novel called Powder Necklace which Washington Square Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, published in April 2010. I wrote Powder Necklace on my one-and-a-half hour commute to and from work, and then in the evenings after work and in the early mornings before work.
The Actual Process
For pretty much every day for a year and a half, I would wake up at like 4 or 5am and write till 6 or 7; pause to shower and get dressed; write on the dollar van or bus to the subway; write on the subway; and repeat on the way home. After dinner, I’d write from like 8 or 9 till 2am, wake up at 4 or 5 and start the cycle all over again. I was almost never without my laptop during that period.
Finding an Agent
Now, prior to this 18-month marathon, I had written what I thought was the finished product about three years before. I pitched the manuscript to agents, mostly ones I found on PublishersMarketplace.com (a platform I highly recommend by the way), and was given what I took as encouraging feedback. Several agents expressed interest in Powder Necklace, pending changes they suggested. I readily made the changes they recommended, which usually took about 6 months to a year, only to get the disappointing response that my edit was not what they had been hoping for.
Four years later, after my 18-month marathon, I had gotten to the point where I was just done. The kitchen, as it were, was closed. I decided I was not going to change my book for an agent anymore. I was going to get the book to a place where I felt fully confident with it, and then I was going to find an agent who felt the same.
I allowed a published friend to read the manuscript I had retooled and when she told me she thought it was ready, I started pitching agents again. This was in mid to late 2007. I did an agent search on Publishers Marketplace, focusing on those who were interested in representing debut fiction authors, and African / African-American / multicultural / Christian / Young Adult / coming of age subject matter, and came across a woman named Elizabeth Jote.
Liz worked at an agency mostly repped non-fiction authors and ghostwriters, but what intrigued me was that the agency also handled film and television rights. Since I had been a finalist for the Sundance Screnwriters’ Institute a few years’ back and am interested in writing for screen as well, I sent her a pitch as well. She responded almost immediately with a YES!
After getting rejected for four years’ straight, I could not trust this immediate yes. We made plans to meet, and I arrived at the restaurant we agreed upon with curiosity and suspicion. When I saw her, I thought she looked very young. At this point I was 30.
I asked her several questions, trying to gauge how much she knew about representing and selling a book. Did she know editors at the major publishing houses? How would she go about selling my manuscript? Oh, and why did she like my book? etc. She answered my questions with confidence and explained the contract she had brought to the lunch. I told her I would think about it.
I had been searching for an agent for four years with nothing but dead-ends to show for it, and now there was this young girl who got my book and me. Did I want to sign on with her? I had nothing to lose, but I had a lot to gain if the right person represented me so I prayed for a sign.
Two agents were in the process of reading my manuscript and I prayed that if Liz was the right one, these other two would express interest. I emailed them both to let them know I had chosen an agent, and one of them responded pissed! She said she had been wanting to meet me to discuss the possibility of repping me! I was elated. I called Liz to accept her offer of representation and sent the signed contract back to her. This was in April 2008. In June 2008, Liz told me Simon & Schuster had made an offer.
I learned that my book was being held for a year before the editing process would begin. I bothered Liz for updates throughout that time until she finally, politely told me to chill and take the opportunity to start working on a new project. I sat tight until mid to late 2009 when my editor from Simon & Schuster, Malaika Adero, contacted me with her first round of edits.
I was incredibly nervous about this process, expecting the edits to change the fundamental spirit of what I was trying to say. I don’t know where I got that idea. Instead, Malaika made gentle, common sense recommendations for story improvement. In other words, we were on the same team. I worked through the edits pretty quickly and sent them back before getting another round of edits that focused on the copy.
The copy editing process was incredibly incisive. I got a document that was essentially a catalog of every instance of every word in the book, along with a list of notes that went something like: “On page 19, she was wearing a red dress, on page 20 the dress is now yellow.” There were tons of those kinds of notes. After a few weeks, I returned the revised document.
Weeks later, Malaika reached out to get my thoughts on what the cover should look like. A few weeks after that, she sent me a few graphic directions to comment on. I told her which one was my favorite and suggested slight changes which she agreed to.
A few months later, I was invited to meet the editorial, marketing and sales teams working on my book as well as shoot an author video that would be used to promote Powder Necklace.
A few weeks later, I received a galley copy of my book with one of the cover directions that we had not ultimately chosen. Around this time, the publicist assigned to my book, Yona Deshommes reached out to me. Liz and I had a conference call with her about what the plans were for the book, whom she had sent the book to already, and events she had lined up for me. I sent her a few names of journalists and editors I thought she should add to the list (I used to be a magazine editor and freelance for a few different publications/blogs, so know a few editors and journalists).
Soon after Yona sent me a draft of the press release she planned to send to short lead press (websites, and daily and weekly newspapers that don’t require as much lead time as monthly and quarterly pubs). Liz and I made some revisions to the release and then we were off.
I received a small box containing my freshly printed book — my first time seeing it with the final cover! After screaming, doing the Risky Business dance in my living room, and multiple “Thank You, Jesus”es, I calmed down, and started to switch from writing mode to marketing mode.
Getting Out There
Yona’s work got me into several magazines, regional newspapers and on key blogs and websites. She booked events, signings, and readings for me at the Studio Museum of Harlem, Borders Books, the Afr’Am Festival, and the Harlem Book Festival among others. In the immediate days and weeks after Powder Necklace came out, I was out of town/at a book-related event every weekend.
During and after those first few weeks, I took the initiative to keep the momentum going. I was zealous about keeping contact with everyone I met at the events I attended, and I found that each event pretty much invariably led to another opportunity of some kind to promote my book. I’ve done everything from speak on panels at literary festivals and teach writing workshops, and share cultural commentary on television. I’ve been featured on news programs and in magazines, and In August 2010, I launched Powder Necklace in Ghana, West Africa where much of the story is based.
In the nearly two years between the time I got the incredible news that Simon & Schuster wanted to publish my book and the actual release of Powder Necklace, I started working on my second book. I thought it would be easier to knock this baby out, but instead it was harder. I am older, I had grown into a more demanding position at work, and I wanted my sophomore effort to reflect growth. I had also moved about an hour closer to work so my writing-friendly commute was no more.
I found a bus that drove straight to work that took about an hour so I wrote the book on the ride in. I usually caught a very early bus so I could continue to write at the library near my job. I did this steadily for about three years. In the process, my agent left the business, and I was beginning to feel burn out at my job.
Recently, I let go of my literary agency to seek new representation, and resigned from my job to focus on writing full time. I took a steep pay cut to do this, but I’ve never been more sure of a decision I’ve made. I’ve started the agent search all over again, and been contributing to different blogs and magazines. I’ve also been applying for grants.
I started this blog because I love writing–the process of doing it and the experience of consuming it–and I love people who write. In spite of the fact that we expose readers to different perspectives and worlds, we can be stuck in our own heads; bogged down with the anxiety about how to get started on the opus we so desperately want the world to read, how to get published, and how to survive as a writing.
There are tons of books and blogs on how to pitch an agent, write a book proposal, the art of writing, etc, and I don’t want to add to the clutter. Frankly, I have tons of work to do, so I’m not even sure how often I can commit to updating this. My hope is at least once a week, but it could be more like once a month.
Whatever the frequency, I want this blog to be a useful couple of minutes’ of procrastination for writers. I’ll aim to share information that’s relevant to writers, profile emerging and established authors, and ask publishing industry professionals what they’re looking for. If this is of interest to you, check “people who write” periodically and call me maybe.