Writing Without Fear: Khadijah VanBrakle
"Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation."- Toni Morrison
Writing can be a thrilling journey. A happy car ride. A satisfactory getaway.
But it can also be scary. Really scary. Frightening, even.
Ask any author, and they will likely tell you that their stories aren't made-up on a whim (or book heaven forbid, an A.I. prompt). Each word, world, character, and plot point comes from within. Whether partly or wholly, authors are writing with their souls.
And while that can be empowering, it also leaves you venerable to a lot of hurt. So do you stop writing with the soul? Do you stop thinking of your books as an expression of yourself and cut out the bits and pieces "you" to avoid potential pain?
Or do you dig deeper into what makes your writing "you"? Do you recall the moments and experiences of your life and infuse them in your book piece by piece? Do you let it all simmer and inspire until you've typed "The End"?
The former is safe. The latter requires courage
Keep on reading to discover how Khadijah VanBrakle wrote without fear.
1. Welp, the first question is the one all in the writing community love to know! What’s the story of your writing journey?
My journey is a long one but here’s a shorter version of it. Based on something one of my daughter’s gifted teachers asked of me, I started creative writing just to see if I could. My extroverted self thought it wouldn’t be too difficult. How wrong I was.
My first completed story was a middle-grade fantasy. It took me nine months of Sundays to finish and was less than 25k words and very, very, very bad. I did no world-building or deep character development. Needless to say, no one will ever see it. Next, I wrote a three, picture book series. I worked hard on it but after talking a writing class, decided to use my imagination for stories with teenage main characters. Suddenly, the voice clicked and I dove in.
My debut novel, FATIMA TATE TAKES THE CAKE, is my second, completed young adult contemporary story. I started writing in 2012 and signed my two-book deal with Holiday House in 2022. In retrospect, ten years seems like a long time and in some ways it is. I remind myself that learning how to write and craft different kinds of stories, along with having a family and a full-time job, takes a lot of time.
2. What advice would you give to writers seeking representation? About rejection and waiting?
For those seeking a literary agent’s representation, my advice is simple. Only query when your manuscript is ready. Take writing classes, join a critique group, and build yourself/join a community of other writers who are trying to be traditionally published. The more you learn, the more your words can shine on the page, if you put the work in. It’s a process—try not to rush it.
The best advice I received is to learn the craft of writing. You want to send out the best version of the manuscript. In addition, read widely in the genre you’re writing. Make libraries and bookstores your favorite places, if they’re not already.
As in any other creative field, waiting and rejection are part of the process. Accept that. When you are in the query trenches, or are agented and on submission to publishers, first congratulate yourself. You did this. You wrote/rewrote/revised your story and now are moving to another step in the process. Celebrate all your accomplishments!!!
Recognize that your feelings are valid. If you're overwhelmed with waiting on an email from a prospective agent or editor, do something else. Spend time with your family, play games on your phone, or maybe even write something new. Whatever it is, try to remind yourself that you are more than this one specific project.
3. You are very involved in the writing community–DVMentor, Black Creators, and a Highlights Foundation Muslim Fellow! How do you manage to stay engaged in it all? And how can writers decide if an organization is for them or if they truly have the time for it?
It might not seem like it, but I am very selective in the organizations I’m a part of. Sometimes commitments are short in duration. DVMentor, if I remember correctly, was a six-month time commitment but I was so fortunate to pick a writer who is very talented and committed to sharing her voice with the world. We’ve kept in contact after the mentorship ended. Other organizations have longer time commitments and as long as I leave myself time to write, I will always try to contribute and be a part of groups I mesh with.
3. There is always a discussion about the state of YA. Understandably, some authors have been eyeing MG. What do you think separates these sub-genres? And what should authors consider if they’re thinking of making the jump to write in the other?
I tend not to worry about the state of specific genres. Yes, right now I’m immersed in Young Adult but I do have a MG WIP and a PB WIP in the works, in addition to some future YA projects. Telling realistic, dynamic stories for children/tweens/teens featuring main characters who share my dual marginalization has always been, and inshaALLAH, will always be my goal.
As far as jumping into different genres, I like to read current books in the new age group. Your local library is a great place to start. Also, consuming tv shows and movies as well. See what your target audience is into. Armed with this information, you can start to understand what separates these sub-genres.
4. A little birdie spied that I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter possibly inspired your love for contemporary novels (SN: I LOVE THAT BOOK). Would you please share a little more as to why? What other authors or books have influenced or inspired your writing?
Well, your little birdie is half right. I do love I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez. Anyone who’s read it, gets it. If you missed this amazing National Book Award finalist, rectify that situation immediately. But it wasn’t my first inspiration.
In 2017, when my youngest daughter was in ninth grade, she was assigned to read Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson in her Honors English class. That YA contemporary classic opened my eyes and sparked my interest in writing stories for teens laced with raw honesty and difficult, real-life situations. By the time I finished Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson, I was hooked.
These titles and a few more not mentioned gave me permission to infuse uncomfortable truths in my YA stories.
5. What’s your writerly form of self-care?
Author self-care is super important. As someone who’d rather power through and finish my writing tasks, I’ve found that I’m more productive when I take regular breaks (when I’m not on a deadline). If anyone follows me on social media, you will see pictures of my collection of Adult Lego sets. I’m a big fan of henna tattoos and a LOTR marathon is something I always use as a reward.
Ok, now it’s time for the ‘fun’ questions!
6. Your publisher has reached out to the big dogs in Hollywood to get an identifying Black Muslim celebrity to do an annual promotion of your debut book. Who do you pick?
b. Ice Cube
c. Kareem Abdul Jabbar
d. Mahershala Ali
e. Ibtihaj Muhammad
Anyone of those identifying Black Muslims’ endorsement would be great. If I had to choose someone in the public eye, it would the amazingly talented Alicia Keys. She’s uber talented and at least one of her songs is in each of the playlists I’ve created for each writing project.
The most important thing to me is knowing that Black American Muslims teens are seeing themselves on the printed page and my book resonates with all young people who feel unseen and unheard.
7. Unpopular book or writing opinion?
That you have to be either a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’. I know some authors are in the middle but as long as you find a drafting process that works for you, embrace it. Don’t worry about the label or judge your method against someone else’s method.
8. The top 5 must-dos when traveling to New Mexico are….
Five Places Not to Miss in New Mexico (caveat: I can’t recommend places I’ve never been)
Sandia Peak Tramway in Albuquerque
Historic downtown Santa FE
Any one of the many Native American pueblos in the state
Plaza Blanca in Abiquiu NM
Jemez mountains in Jemez NM
Khadijah L. VanBrakle is a Muslim woman of color living in the southwestern US. As someone born and raised in Canada to American parents, she writes to ensure teens who share her Black & American Muslim dual marginalization see themselves on the printed page. Her debut Contemporary YA novel, FATIMA TATE TAKES THE CAKE, is due out June 13, 2023, from Holiday House. Find her online at khadijahvanbrakle.com or on Twitter @lvanbrakle.
My website: https://www.khadijahvanbrakle.com/
Annnd check out Khadija's debut book cover, FATIMA TATE TAKES THE CAKE, coming out THIS JUNE from Holiday House!