This month in our Spilling the Tea column, we’re chatting with author Kaija Langley! Kaija gives us the details on how a WNDB mentorship helped and influenced her journey as a author, advice for writers at different stages of their careers, and more. Be sure to check out Kaija’s new middle grade novel-in-verse The Order of Things, out now!
Tell us a bit about your journey as a writer. Who were your primary influences?
I know it isn’t true of every writer, but my journey began as a reader. My earliest influence was my mother, who was an elementary school teacher and a voracious reader. As an only child we would often get our respective books and find a corner of the house and read together. I also loved Highlights magazine and mostly wrote poetry influenced by Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni.
A true turning point in my evolution as a reader and writer was when a family friend gifted me a copy of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor on my twelfth birthday. It was a revelation to see young characters who looked like me, and families who looked like mine, on the page.
In my early twenties and thirties, I completed two adult novels, several dozens of short stories, and one MFA, but I wasn’t making any progress on the agent or publishing front. I’d done everything I thought I was supposed to do—followed all the steps—and what began as a short break from writing became an unintended ten year hiatus. It was a co-worker and my spouse who prompted me to return to writing because, quite honestly, I was miserable without my creative outlet.
In 2016, I slowly returned to writing an adult novel about a young woman who was reflecting on a pivotal life event during the summer when she was 12 years old. Yet, a number of life synchronicities convinced me it was actually a MG novel. That MG novel, Call Me Early, was my submission for the 2018 WNDB mentorship application!
In terms of developing your craft, what was it like before your mentorship, and how did it shift after?
Prior to my MFA, I participated in several novel and short story workshops. I understood the basic fundamentals of story and how to incorporate feedback through many rounds of revision. And of course I read widely and often, studying what other writers did with plot, pacing, dialogue, structure, POV.
Pre-mentorship I believed a story needed to be narratively complex with multiple sublots, a hard driving plot, and a high concept to make an impact on a reader. During the mentorship I developed a different understanding and appreciation for how a very well written, character-driven story can emotionally move a reader, too. It can be just as powerful.
What were the most helpful insights—about writing and/or the publishing industry—that you gained from working with a mentor?
I learned that every writer’s journey and experience will be different. Not every writer gets a book auction or six-figure deal with their debut book. And that’s okay. Becoming an author is a long game with lots of twists and turns. It’s rarely linear.
Midway through my mentorship with Alex, I went on query and received an offer of representation from an amazing agent. Alex and I continued to meet monthly to discuss the industry, what to expect when preparing to go out on submission, and what it’s like to receive reviews and galleys of your (near finished) book. How to handle the business side of writing when so much of a writer’s time in the early years is spent on creating.
Also, assume nothing. Keep writing. Keep connecting with others in the writing community. My first book didn’t find a publishing home, but I’d already started drafting The Order of Things, while it was on submission.
Did you go on to apply for any other programs? Fellowships, workshops, even other mentorships? If so, are there any that you’d particularly recommend?
I work full-time and have found it challenging to apply and make time for additional opportunities to date.
How many programs did you apply to before you were accepted for a WNDB mentorship? What kind of research did you do?
I only applied for the WNDB mentorship. And to be honest, I waited until the very last day with only hours to spare to meet the deadline. I was nervous to submit because one of the qualifications for consideration was having a completed first draft. I had about 70% of the draft completed when I hit submit, but I made a promise to myself to get to the end before December when I expected decisions would be made.
What advice would you offer to writers just starting their journeys? Alternately, what advice would you offer to writers who are “on the verge” (actively working towards but not yet published)?
For those just starting the writing journey, I would advise to write what you want. Seriously! Don’t pigeon-hole your creativity. Develop your voice. Get in the habit of completing messy first drafts. Read a wide variety of work—fiction, non-fiction, historical, fantasy, contemporary—because you can learn something from them all and find inspiration in the most unlikely places. Learn how to receive and incorporate feedback.
For writers on the verge, keep writing. Find community in other writers who can support your work and make it stronger. Show up to book launches, email your favorite author, share resources and information. It’s a small world, truly. Most of all, celebrate all the wins, big and small. Someone passes on your work, but says something encouraging. Celebrate it. An agent offers rep? Celebrate it. Your book isn’t bought after being on submission for thirteen months, but an editor asks to see your next book? Might feel horrible emotionally, but it’s still an opportunity to celebrate. Which is why you have to keep writing.
Do you have any writing rituals? If so, what are they?
In my early days of writing, I made my favorite tea, picked my favorite pen, put on my favorite instrumental jazz music. I wrote my first drafts by hand, and I was setting the mood to create what I assumed would be a masterpiece.
Now, I’ve got a much busier life with family, work and volunteer commitments. I’m much more efficient. I make a point to draft out the Who, What, Where, and Why of each story and a very loose outline to follow. I put in my ear buds, start an ambient soundtrack on my Calm app, and write scenes on my iPad or Notes app on my phone. I might be at home, taking lunch in my office, on a subway, or a beach. Doesn’t matter. It isn’t sexy, but it gets the words down!
Anything else to add?
I’m forever grateful to WNDB for the mentorship opportunity. Having this experience so early in my career where I could ask questions in real time and get honest answers specific to my work and my vision of my story has made a world of difference.
Kaija Langley was born in Northern NJ and raised on a healthy diet of library books, music and theater performances, and visits to the family farm in rural North Carolina. The author of the award-winning picture book, When Langston Dances, she loves long road trips, dancing wherever music moves her, and adventures near and far with her Beloved. She splits her time between Cambridge, MA and Los Angeles, CA.