Thursday, March 15, 2018

Guest Post: Ann Jacobus: Critique Group Makes Frances Lee Hall's Publishing Dream Come True

By Ann Jacobus
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

It’s an unusual moment when our writing group is in full agreement. But in this case, we knew we had to bring our friend Frances Lee Hall’s wonderful middle grade story to young readers.

The question was how?

Frances Lee Hall
We had all just attended her memorial service. Frances died suddenly on Nov. 26, 2016.

She had also been through hell and high water, as only a writer can, with her middle-grade manuscript, Lily Lo And The Wonton Maker. We had critiqued it through more than one revision and loved her story like our own.

One of Frances’s favorite expressions was “Yaaaay!”

She had always been so supportive of each of us and we couldn’t imagine letting her dream go unrealized.

The story really begins at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) in the Writing for Children and Young Adult program.

I met Frances, a San Francisco native, there in 2005 during her first residency. We were in a workshop together and both her writing and her ability to critique others’ work made a deep impression on me.


As author Annemarie O’Brien says, “Frances would often let everyone speak, and then at the very end she’d toss out some profound comment that would make us all stop, think, and reevaluate.”

When my family moved to San Francisco in 2009, Frances and I formed a writing group. Naturally, we had to name ourselves and chose “Beyond the Margins.” Annemarie, Helen Pyne, Linden McNeilly, Christine Dowd, and Sharry Wright soon joined us.

Ann, Frances and Annemarie O'Brien
“Frances was a terrific cheerleader, role model and editor,” Helen says, and in late 2013, we celebrated with homemade fried wonton and California wine when Frances’ agent Marietta Zacker sold Lily Lo And The Wonton Maker to international publisher Egmont USA.

We had been expecting it. As her former VCFA advisor Cynthia Leitich Smith says, “Frances’ writing came from a place of light and tenderness. Throughout her process, she thought of the child readers and drew on her own inner child to inform how best to lift them up. Her work exhibited a heightened emotional intelligence and a loving respect for tradition, elders, and intergenerational relationships.”

Indeed, Frances’ protagonist Lily is a determined and energetic third-grade soccer player who finds her Grandpa, Gung Gung, and his traditional ways perplexing in their newly dependent relationship. Lily struggles to find common ground with him, and in her mounting frustration alienates some of her friends and teammates. The story is heart-felt but also very funny.

“Frances did such a great job capturing goofy kid humor,” says Helen.

Lily Lo is a universal story about family and friendship, and it’s also the kind of children’s novel Frances wished she’d had access to growing up in the Bay Area. She said that, although her elementary school was 75-to-80 percent Asian-American, she had never read a story as a child that featured a character or a family like hers.

Cynthia says, “I know the heightened challenges for authors of color and their writing weighed heavily on her. It's something we talked about.”

Frances was an early fervent supporter of We Need Diverse Books. Cynthia continues, “My heart contracts at the thought of how much more welcome she might feel today than even a few years ago. I know she would be encouraged by progress made and delighted that her book will become a part of that rising conversation centered on inclusivity.”

In 2014, things moved very slowly at Egmont with Frances’s book, but we were all shocked when the publisher closed its U.S. operations a year later, leaving Lily Lo and other stories stranded.

Frances and Marietta re-submitted and almost sold Lily Lo a second time, only to have that fall through as well.

Frances persisted, although she was deeply disappointed. She continued working and submitting until tragedy struck. She suffered a brain aneurysm in November 2016 and died a week later leaving behind her husband Lance and their fourteen-year-old daughter, Emmie.

Everyone who knew Frances was heartbroken. So many people turned out to celebrate her life at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in Chinatown, San Francisco, a week after Thanksgiving. Friends and writers across the country celebrated her life online.

Before Frances became a children’s writer, she worked in television. We knew she had an Emmy, but she never mentioned she had won three from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for her work in TV writing and production. We learned this after she died.

Beyond the Margins, along with several other of her writer friends, decided to do something to honor Frances and her writing.

Another one of her manuscripts that we love is called Paper Son. It’s about a Chinese boy who goes alone through the San Francisco Angel Island Immigration Station in the 1930s, driven by the dream of reuniting with his father in the United States.

Helen says, “Frances’s young protagonist, Moon, suffers hardship and heartbreak, but he’s strong and resilient and an inspirational main character.”

However, as Annemarie says, “We selected Lily Lo (for publication) because it had proven debut promise and was ready, requiring no revisions beyond copyedits.”

None of us were willing to revise Frances’s stories or change her words on a deeper level. Lily Lo had been through many, many drafts and had already been revised with an outstanding editor.

With Lance’s support, Marietta followed up on a few leads for possible posthumous publication. But traditional publishers understandably proved reluctant to take on a debut without a living author behind it. So, we began a search for an alternative.

Annemarie knew of a hybrid publisher in Oakland called Inkshares. Their model involves crowd-funding with pre-orders to cover all the upfront costs of traditional publishing—or editorial development, cover and book design, sales, promotion and distribution.

Annemarie says, “Promoting Lily Lo for pre-orders was a group effort led by Ann who made it simple for us to email friends, create posts on Facebook, and tweets on Twitter. It was easy to advocate for Frances because of the support we got from her family and friends, as well as from the VCFA community.”

The original goal for was 750 pre-orders. In the funding phase, Inkshares asks $30 for a pre-order package that includes the book, an ebook, and “updates” from the author. But we soon opted for the Inkshares “Quill” path which only required 250 pre-orders.

This route is closer to a self-publishing model in that it does not include a developmental edit or cover design. But it also returns a larger percentage of net sales to the author--or her estate in this case, and specifically, her daughter Emmie’s education fund.

Rita Williams Garcia
A graphic-artist friend from Frances’ TV production days, May Key Lee, designed a dynamite cover. We funded ahead of schedule and now Lily Lo is in pre-production. Inkshares will do the copy-edits, and we provided front and back matter, blurbs (including one from Rita Williams Garcia!), forewords, and a bio.

Lily Lo And The Wonton Maker should be printed and available by late summer.

Frances’s family joins us in thanking all those who have taken part in bringing this story and its author’s memory to life. Yaaaay!

Lily Lo And The Wonton Maker is available now for pre-order at $10.99 a copy.


Cynsational Notes

Ann Jacobus writes children’s and YA fiction, blogs and tweets about it, teaches writing and volunteers on a suicide crisis line.

She’s published short fiction, essays and poetry in anthologies, journals, and magazines, and is the author of YA thriller Romancing the Dark in the City of Light (St. Martin’s Press, 2015).

San Francisco is home to her and her family.

6 comments:

Carol Coven Grannick said...

This is a beautiful tribute. Thank you for sharing it with all of us. It's surely a reminder to work as hard as we can, and treasure the time we have.

Christy Mihaly said...

Ann, I love the story of how your writing group rallied to make Frances's dream a reality. Thank you for your part in making sure LILY LO gets out into the world. I can't wait to read it!

Vicki Wittenstein said...

Ann, you and your group are very special. What a beautiful story.

Vicki Wittenstein said...

Ann, you and your group are very special. What a beautiful tribute to your dear friend.

lisa doan said...

Frances was in my very small class at VCFA - she is missed by all of us. I can't wait to get my copy in the mail.

Sherry Shahan said...

Thank you for sharing this "feel good" story. A beautiful tribute and reminder of the wide and wonderful VT MFA family. Aren't we lucky!