The two authors’ first book, Tiny Pretty Things, released this week by HarperTeen, tells the story of three ballerinas from diverse backgrounds at a competitive Manhattan ballet school. The writing duo’s goal is to offer commercial YA fiction featuring diverse characters, books the pair sees a lack of in the current marketplace. In addition to working together on this book (and a forthcoming sequel), Charaipotra and Clayton are also heavily involved with the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and have launched a literary packaging company together. They spoke with PW about their various projects.
How did you collaborate to co-write the novel?
DC: We have different strengths.
SC: She has great dialogue, I focus on worldbuilding and character.
DC: Sona watches the arcs, I take responsibility for the characters, and we go through each other’s work.
SC: As we edit we go through and tweak so it becomes one unified voice. We work together on the outline, write separately, edit together. We have a giant Google doc and spreadsheets. She’ll fill in parts of chapter for me, and leave notes for plot holes. If you can’t bring yourself to write a particular scene, I can leave it for her, like “throw in more dancing here” [remarking on Dhonielle’s background as a ballet teacher].
DC: There’s no secret sauce [to collaboration]... we just play to our strengths, and we’re not precious about it if we need to say “you need to rewrite this.”
What can you tell us about Cake Literary?
SC: We started talking about it when we were in grad school. We were critique partners, and we would meet up and talk about books and TV we liked as kids. We didn’t see ourselves reflected in books.
DC: I was lucky in that there were some real giants [of African-American literature, including] Walter Dean Myers, Mildred Taylor, Virginia Hamilton, I had them but usually their narratives were focused on the past, on slavery, on overcoming adversity, poverty stories. I didn’t have that situation growing up, I was pretty spoiled, I was looking for the little brown girl who rode horses, and played golf with her parents. I went to the library several times a week and I ran out of books really quickly. [Sona and I] were in workshops together, and realized that people don’t have the skills to talk about diverse books. [We wanted to give diverse writers the tools in the recipe that we came up with…
SC: […to create] the fun page-turner. You don’t see a lot of diverse books written in that way.
DC: [We aim to create] packaged books that showcase diversity in a meaningful way, but are also embroiled in a mystery, or a romance, something with feelings. This is what we’re about, and how we do diversity.
SC: Cake [has been] in the works since 2011. [The books are] high-concept, page-turnery-things, and all the writers are diverse. We currently have four books in the works.
SC: [We create the] outline, synopsis, character work, and coach writers through the work in the novel, teaching three act structure, how to write the book, and we edit. It’s a traditional write-for-hire model.
You both work closely with We Need Diverse Books, the grassroots organization aimed at increasing books by and about members of diverse groups represented in publishing. Are there any forthcoming projects you’re particularly focused on, and can you speak to the importance of this work?
DC: I am one of their librarians. There are three of us, and we’re rolling out an educational kit to booksellers and librarians next week that shows how to pitch diverse books. It has shelftalkers, things you can actually use to pitch books, with 10 picture book, middle grade, and YA titles. It’s not a best-of, but a starting list. There are some forthcoming titles, and some backlist, because there are some gems in the backlist. We want to work with the gatekeepers about what we do with diverse books. There will be an online component as well, that they download.
SC: I’m working on organizing the [day-long book] festival, which will be July 2016 outside of Washington, D.C.
What are you working on next?
DC: I have a series from Disney-Hyperion coming out in the next year or two, Belles, [which is] high fantasy. We’re also working on projects to come out of Cake this fall, and we’re also working on more Dhonielle/Sona projects.
SC: I’m working on a grown-up thing, with an August deadline, and Dhonielle is my taskmaster.
Tiny Pretty Things by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton. HarperTeen, $17.99 May ISBN 978-0-06-234239-3