Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton are the coolest thing to hit YA in a long time. Not only are they team writers of the excellent and fabulously reviewed “page-turner with a heart” (says Kirkus) debut novel “Tiny Pretty Things,” they are the brains and energy behind CAKE Literary, a book development company for MG and YA novels with an emphasis on diverse characters and voices. It’s about time, right? So, YARN had a chance to ask them 5 questions–the 5th in our 5 Year Anniversary series of short interviews–about balancing writing, entrepreneurship, and friendship.
YARN: What’s it like to write a novel together? Can you give us some nitty-gritty on how you made it work–like, did Sona write a chapter, the Dhonielle write the next? How did you make the voice smooth throughout? How did you iron out any wrinkles that presented themselves?
Sona: For “Tiny Pretty Things” and its sequel, we decided to divide and conquer. There are three protagonists, so in writing we each took one of the girls, and we split the third. Then we’d edit each others chapters – and we aimed not to be precious about it at all. That way, in the end, while the characters had distinct voices, the whole piece also felt cohesive. We work together in a Google doc, and we tend to write and paste into that big doc as we go. And we always work from an outline, so if something’s not working, we’ll go back and revisit that and figure out why.
Dhonielle: We also have different strengths, and we play to that. Coming from a screenwriting background, Sona is all about structure and plot – she focuses on developing an outline from the start and refining it until it works. And I’m more centered on character and world-building, so I always work from there. It makes things come together more quickly and thoroughly when we’re building a project – and it makes brainstorming more fun.
YARN: What is something that you hope teenage readers in and out of the ballet world take away from “Tiny Pretty Things”?
Sona: The big picture is that if something’s worth having, it’s worth fighting for. But of course, these girls take that to a dark place. So it’s also about girls and competition and the struggles they face – it’s like high school times 1000. Sort of an examination of the way we’ve groomed girls today to compete with each other rather than lift each other up.
Dhonielle: And like all of CAKE Literary’s projects, it’s about bringing organic diversity – diversity in the way Sona and I experience it. It’s the ballet-specific things, like not getting a role because you don’t fit the Ballet Blanc ideal, but also the little things, like the color of the nude tights or someone presuming you don’t speak English well because you’re of Korean descent.
YARN: How do you balance your lives as writers, and as editors and entrepreneurs at CAKE Literary?
Dhonielle: I thrive on being busy. I structure my day, week, month, compartmentalizing tasks so that I know what’s ahead. I’m also a middle school librarian and a tutor, so those two things require me to make the best use of what limited time I have. And unless I’m head-down drafting or revising, I tend to set aside certain days for certain tasks. One day will be CAKE administrative stuff, the next might be brainstorming with Sona, another will be focused on writing a synopsis for a personal project.
Sona: It’s not easy – we’ve both got day jobs, and I’ve also got two kids who like to hang with their mama. But being busy has taught us that we have to prioritize and plan ahead for the big picture. We’ve got a CAKE calendar, and we mark our personal obligations on it as well, so no one is caught of guard – and we communicate A LOT. Every day. Usually several times a day. And when it comes to writing, we try to set some dedicated time and establish boundaries. Dhonielle is the taskmaster – she makes lists, checks in frequently, and really makes sure we’re staying on track. I’m definitely more scattered, so I need that. She frequently reminds me that writing time has to be sacred – and it has to be top of list, when your brain is most functional. And because I’m a master procrastinator, I used tools like the Pomodoro App and Wunderlist to keep myself organized.
YARN: With your broad experiences, you’re uniquely suited to give advice. So, what is your advice for young people starting out in the publishing business, no matter what their area of interest?
Sona: So much of this is business is about who you know – it’s an old girls’ club. So within that, you have to find your people. It won’t be easy, and not everyone will be rooting for you. But when you do, hold on to them. Find people who will lift you up. Find people who have the information you need. And when you have the opportunity, pay it forward.
Dhonielle: That’s a big part of the reason we co-founded CAKE Literary. We really wanted to get more diverse books on shelves – more than Sona or I could ever be able to write ourselves – but in the past several years we’ve made some great connections with editors and publishing people. We wanted to be able to pull others like us, who wouldn’t automatically have that insight or opportunity, forward with us. To hold that door open for others, as much as we can.
YARN: That’s a gorgeous idea and metaphor, thanks. So….Do you have plans to write more together in the future? Are there other worlds you’re mutually interested in, having conquered ballet?
Sona: We definitely have more Sona and Dhonielle projects in the works – nothing we can talk about just yet. And the sequel to “Tiny Pretty Things” is out next summer. It’ll be called “Shiny Broken Pieces,” and yes, you will get some closure!
YARN: Thanks so much, Sona & Dhonielle, for your time and for all your efforts on behalf of YA readers & writers!
Dhonielle Clayton spent most of her childhood under her grandmother’s table with a stack of books. She hails from the Washington, D.C. suburbs on the Maryland side. She earned an MA in Children’s Literature from Hollins University and an MFA in Writing for Children at the New School. She taught secondary school for several years. Now, she is a librarian at Harlem Village Academies and also serves as VP of Librarian Services for the We Need Diverse Books initiative. She is the co-founder of CAKE Literary, a creative kitchen whipping up decadent — and decidedly diverse — literary confections for middle grade, young adult, and women’s fiction readers. Her debut novel “Tiny Pretty Things” with Sona Charaipotra hits shelves in 2015 from Harper Teen, her YA fantasy series “The Belles” is coming soon from Disney/Hyperion, and she is represented by Victoria Marini at ICM/Gelfman Schnieder. Find Dhonielle on the web at DhonielleClayton.com, or on Twitter: @brownbookworm
A journalist published by everyone from the New York Times to TeenVogue, Sona Charaipotra is the co-founder of CAKE Literary, a boutique book packaging company with a decidedly diverse bent. A collector of presumably useless degrees, she has a masters in screenwriting from New York University (where her thesis project was developed for the screen by MTV Films) and an MFA from the New School’s esteemed Writing for Children program. When she’s not hanging out with her writer husband and two chatter-boxy kids, she can be found poking plot holes in teen shows like The Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars. Call it research: Sona’s a strong believer that three-act structure can work in fiction, too. Her debut novel, “Tiny Pretty Things” (with CAKE co-founder Dhonielle Clayton), is on shelves now. She is a proud member of the We Need Diverse Books team. Find Sona on the web at SonaCharaipotra.com, or on Twitter: @sona_c