Sing the Song that Calls to You: Gabi Burton
(cue Under the Sea instrumental)
The story is always better
in someone else's Doc
You think you'll never get there
But let's take a moment to reevaluate
Just look at the draft in front of you
Right there on the computer screen
Such wonderful prose and plot surrounds you
What more is you doubting for?
Scroll and read
Scroll and read
And learn about Gabi's publishing journey!
1.Welp, the first question is the one all in the writing community love to know! What’s the story of your publication journey (agent-published book)?
My journey started out slow, and then all at once, it was like a whirlwind. It’s kind of a long story, but I’ll give you the abridged version. I started querying Sing Me to Sleep (my now-debut YA Fantasy) at the tail end of querying a YA mystery. The mystery got full rejection after full rejection and I was ready to shelve it by the end of 2020.
Around that same time, I started writing Sing Me to Sleep. Working on it made me fall in love with writing all over again and it almost made me forget how heartbroken I was over the full rejections I kept getting on my YA mystery. Almost.
I was super excited when February 2021 rolled around and I hurled Sing Me to Sleep into the querying trenches. Two days later, I got an offer of rep. On my first book. To this day, that blows my mind.
Since I had just started querying a new project I loved, I held off on making a decision on that first offer. And about a month later, I got an offer from my now-agent, Naomi Davis. From there, things moved so fast I’m still trying to keep up. My agent and I spent two weeks on edits and then went on sub. Two weeks after that, we had our first offer for a two-book deal! I can’t tell you how blown away I was by this. An agent I had a call with joked about getting a book deal for graduation—and we ended up selling a month before I graduated college!
Over the next couple of days, we got a few more offers before Bloomsbury pre-empted and I was more than thrilled to accept. I’m still in a state of shock that I get to say this, but my debut novel is coming out in Spring 2023 and I can’t wait! I’m loving working with my editor so far and 2023 can’t come soon enough!
2. What advice would you give to queries seeking representation? About rejection and waiting?
If you can, KEEP WRITING. Querying is hard. Rejections hurt. But if you keep writing new stories, you can 1. Pass the time, and 2. Have a backlog of books ready to query.
Shelving a book while querying doesn’t mean you’re shelving it forever. It just means a different book will get your foot in the door with an agent.
But honestly, the most important advice: make writer friends! I gush about Twitter friends all the time, but I honestly didn’t realize how much I wanted to connect with people who get it until I made writer friends. Querying is an experience that’s kind of impossible for non-writers to understand. My heart was broken on more than one occasion and I didn’t know how to articulate how I was feeling to my in-person friends. Finding a community of people who understand was cathartic in so many ways. Find friends! Connect! VENT! (privately) It makes the process more manageable.
3. Your debut, Sing Me to Sleep, is a YA fantasy with sirens and...(DRUMROLL)...fae! Ooo, chile and they’re Black and Brown. You’re busting windows open, Gabi! Can you tell us a little more about any influence you have in writing about these creatures? Are you a LoTR fan? Part of the Holly Black fandom? Or have mythical creatures always piques your interest?
Eek! This is so sweet! Haha, in my dreams would I compare myself to Holly Black. And I’m actually not into LoTR (unless you count liking Orlando Bloom—sorry, I mean Legolas—as being into LoTR). But absolutely, yes, I’ve always loved mythical creatures. As a kid, as soon as I knew what a siren was, I was hooked. The idea of a siren is equal parts chilling and empowering. I mean, badass women who shamelessly embrace their beauty and lure men to their deaths? Yes, please.
When I got the idea for Sing Me to Sleep, I was fascinated by the idea of a woman main character who was bold and fearless. And I really wanted her to be Black.
Here’s the thing: I LOVE water. I love swimming. I always have. But as a Black woman (and this might sound trivial to those of y’all who aren’t Black women in a white world) I’m very self-conscious about my hair when it gets wet. And as much as I’ve always loved swimming, I never felt confident without straight hair. But I wanted to. To this day, it’s something I’m working on. Growing up, the world didn’t tell me I was beautiful or that I had any power. Recently, we’ve started to change that, but that doesn’t erase the internalized mess that’s built up over the years. At least, it hasn’t for me.
So, Saoirse was born. She’s a siren. She’s powerful and beautiful and confident. All the things I’ve always admired about sirens. All the things I wish I could be. And, oh yeah, she’s Black.
My motivation for writing fae was different. In mythology, fae are always those creatures in the background, pulling the strings behind the scenes. They make things happen without mortals knowing. And I really felt like that’s so much a part of the Black experience. Working behind the scenes, making things happen, moving and shaking—and getting no credit.
When I made the world of Sing Me to Sleep, I wanted to put Black fae at the forefront of the action. I wanted them to make choices and set the rules.
4. “Readers respond when you mesh the familiar with the unfamiliar” When worldbuilding in fantasy, do you find this quote to be true? How much do you keep familiar and how much do you introduce?
This was my first time writing fantasy and part of what I loved about it was exactly this—combining what I know with what I imagine. The best fantasy builds new worlds using descriptions and concepts we already recognize. A cool example of this is Fire by Kristin Cashore. I adore this book. Part of the worldbuilding is her use of monsters. Cashore’s monsters are creatures you or I would recognize—a bird, a horse, even a human— but beautiful in an uncanny way, and vicious. So, she took something we all recognize and made it her own.
Doing this effectively in Sing Me to Sleep was definitely the goal. I can only hope I pulled it off!
5. You have shared your opinions about the publishing industry, often not understanding the cultural experience of BIPOC writers living in the diaspora. And unfortunately, some criticism even suggests that a BIPOC writer not writing exclusively or deep within the culture of their motherland makes their stories “less interesting” or “less important”. Would you say this phrasing/mentality is harmful? Ignorant, even? Is it a teller of faults within publishing marketing in the approach to use a “catch-all” tagline for books by BIPOC writers?
I am so glad you asked this question and I’m apologizing in advance for this long reply. Treating any identity as a monolith is a problem, and publishing does this all the time. This mindset is especially ignorant and harmful for BIPOC writers because it flagrantly disregards a history of cultural suppression and erasure. It seems like publishing wants to have its cake and eat it too. They want to claim they want more racial and cultural diversity in books from BIPOC authors. They claim they understand that because of a history of colonization and slavery, white authors have dominated and continue to dominate publishing. But then they also want to ignore the impact of colonization, slavery, and genocide of BIPOC at the hands of white people, and ask BIPOC to conform to a culture that was forcibly taken from them.
There are several problems with this, but I’ll try to be brief:
For one thing, it presumes that if BIPOC writers don’t write the culture that white people expect, that they don’t have a culture. But that’s absurd. I might not have a connection to a strictly African culture (having never been to the continent or have any idea which country or countries in Africa my ancestors are from) but I absolutely have access to African American culture. And the same is true for people of different races and ethnicities.
For another thing, it puts a burden on BIPOC authors to jump through even more hoops so that what we write aligns with what other people expect, rather than our own experiences.
Simply put: to erase the diaspora is to erase me and countless other creators.
I love that we’re finally making spaces for BIPOC writers. Ten years ago, I couldn’t find a book about someone who looks like me that wasn’t about slavery. We’ve come a long way since then—and that’s amazing—but wow do we have a long way to go. We’ve accepted that not all Black main characters have to be slaves—great. Now we need to accept that not all BIPOC fit neatly into culture boxes.
Embracing diversity means accepting blended cultures, blended people, and blended histories. I can’t tell you how sick I am of hearing I’m only allowed to be what someone stole from me.
6. How do you keep a balance between school, writing, and personal life? Do you think it’s important for writers to set boundaries between writing life and other parts of their life?
I really wish I had a good answer to this one, but honestly, I kind of just gave up sleep in college. Fortunately, the skills a lot of writers have naturally come in handy in college. Turns out, being a fast reader and writer are pretty useful skills when you’re an English and Government double-major.
Did I end up striking a good balance? Probably (definitely) not. But I did get through my school work quickly enough to have time to write instead of sleep, so I guess that’s a win.
7. You maintain a pretty positive Twitter persona. How can authors navigate the positives of the writing and book community on social media rather than the luster*ck, mental drain that comes around every other day?
First, I want to say that positivity doesn’t work for everyone. I know plenty of people who don’t feel motivated by positivity, and that’s totally ok!
But to answer the question, and at the risk of sounding cliché, I think the best way to navigate happiness and positivity on social media is to make genuine friendships and connections. It’s a lot easier to celebrate good things when they’re happening to people you know and care about.
When you’re genuinely excited about other people’s successes, it can elevate the highs of social media, even if the lows are still there.
Also: make sure to take breaks when you need them. We all need a good social media detox every now and then. And there’s nothing wrong with that. If the mental drain is leaving you empty, take some time to recharge. As much as you need.
Ok, now it’s time for the ‘fun’ questions!
8. Let’s pretend these famous singers are competing at Siren Idol. Whose pipes would put everyone to sleep?
a. Whitney Houston
b. Jennifer Hudson
c. Lady Gaga
d. Mariah Carey
e. Ariana Grande
Gotta say Whitney. I’d follow her anywhere if she sang it for me.
9. Unpopular book or writing opinion?
Oh, boy. I definitely have a few. Let me think of one that won’t get me in trouble…
Ok, I think authors attacking authors isn’t productive. I see a lot of discourse around what’s harder: querying or being on submission. I hate this discourse. It’s an impossible question to answer because the truth is it varies person to person. There are people who have experienced both who believe that querying is harder, and those who feel the opposite is true. It really just depends on who you are as a person and what personally causes you more anxiety. The fact is, both are stressful in their own ways and different people are going to feel differently about both processes because (and this isn’t controversial, and yet I feel it’s always an important reminder) people are different. We feel differently. We think differently. And that’s ok.
But more important: why does it matter which is “harder?” Can’t we just agree that breaking into publishing is hard and try to boost each other when we need it?
10. List 5 songs on Saoirse the Siren’s playlist?
I know this doesn’t really answer the question, but I’m only picking one song and it’s Evermore by Taylor Swift because it’s the ONLY song I listened to while writing Sing Me to Sleep. Not the album. Just the song. I have no regrets.
Gabi Burton is a Young Adult author from St. Louis, Missouri. She graduated from Bowdoin College in 2021 and works as a paralegal on the East Coast. When she’s not reading or writing, she’s probably watching Netflix, Tweeting, or finding beautiful places to walk—preferably near a body of water. She is represented by the amazing Naomi Davis at BookEnds Literary and her debut novel SING ME TO SLEEP comes out in Spring 2023!