A Poet Writes a Novel
Fort Worth teacher Rebecca Balcárcel stays busy. The co-chair of Tarrant County College’s (TCC) English Department adjusted to remote teaching during the pandemic in addition to sustaining her burgeoning career as a novelist.
In 2019, her novel The Other Half of Happy was published by Chronicle Books. It tells the story of Quijana, who is learning to fit in as a bi-cultural girl while honoring her family’s heritage.
Balcárcel’s work has been widely recognized, garnering both the Texas Institute of Letters’ Jean Flynn Award for Best Young Adult Book and the Pura Belpré Award, given by the Association for Library Service to Children. The book is the culmination of a six-year process, beginning with a collection of prose poems, which reflected Balcárcel’s bi-cultural upbringing and were inspired by Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, which develops character and tension through connected vignettes.
After developing the pieces in workshops, Balcárcel sought an agent. Twenty query letters later, she got a response that made it clear she had to decide what direction the material would take. According to her future agent, the poet could pursue publication with small presses as a collection of poems or create a work of fiction and seek a larger audience.
Balcárcel recalled, “She told me, ‘If you want to take this to market, it needs to be fiction. It needs characters, structure, and a plot.’ And, I decided that I really hoped this girl could speak to a bigger audience.”
This kind of feedback would cause most writers to shrink. Still, Balcárcel dug in and continued building a plot to carry her protagonist through the story. She began the transformation over a summer, writing four more drafts. Eventually, the aforementioned agent agreed she was moving in the right direction and took her on as a client.
Now Balcárcel found herself in new territory; although she taught literature, she had focused on poetry throughout her writing life. She explained, “I had to think about action arcs and character development. It was hard, but eventually, [my agent] told me, ‘I think we can sell this.’”
After the book was sold to Chronicle Books, Balcárcel realized that was only the beginning. Her new editor presented her with 13 single-spaced pages of notes and commentary on the book as an introduction to the world of novel writing.
“I was still making big re-writes even after the book sold. It was another nine months before we sent it to the copy editors,” Balcárcel said.
Through the process, she remained committed to connecting her main character’s world to a broader audience while keeping the poetry of the language alive. She said, “I think that’s why it got some love from the awards.”
Going from poetry to fiction required a shift in Balcárcel’s mindset: who would her audience be? “I thought it was [told by] an adult looking back, but my agent helped me realize it was a middle-grade novel,” she remembered. “I didn’t know what a middle-grade novel was, so I had to Google it.”
The “middle grade” designation is an umbrella description of readers who are between 10 and 15 years old. This revelation led her to consume between 40 to 50 middle grade books to get a sense of voice and other critical literary elements that middle grade readers seek.
This was the eureka moment, where the story’s underlying energy came to the surface for Balcárcel, allowing for harmonic resonance between writer, story, and character. She explained, “The book is for any kid out there that feels like they are straddling two worlds.”
Balcárcel has attended conventions for teachers and librarians. “It has been really rewarding meeting the adults who put the books in the kids’ hands,” she beamed.
At Houston’s Tweens Read convention, thousands of kids were bussed to the event to meet dozens of authors. Balcárcel sat on a panel for the kids in her audience. And she was able to have face-to-face interactions with her readers, like the girl with a similarly bi-cultural background who told her she had never felt so seen.
Wasting little time and remaining inspired, the idea for her second book came quickly. It sold to publishers on the appeal of her outline and just a couple of chapters. But when it came to fleshing out her concept, Balcárcel found herself stuck in the mud.
“I was behind on the deadline, and then COVID happened. I decided I’m just going to put my head down and concentrate,” she shared. “It is so surreal because the first one took so long, but now it all feels set up.”
In March and April of 2020, early in the lockdown, she wrote 50 chapters of her next book, Shine On, Luz Veliz, which is scheduled for release in the spring of 2022. The book focuses on a young soccer star who suffers an injury and must find a new way to value herself. This novel allowed Balcárcel to explore STEM education themes as her main character, Luz, discovers a passion for computers and technology.
“We meet her as she’s forming a new identity,” Balcárcel enthused. “It was fun because we don’t see a lot of Latin characters in the science world.”
Working at TCC for over 15 years, Balcárcel is truly an educator at heart, as can be seen on display on her YouTube channel in her 6-minute scholar videos, which find her explaining elements of literature and writing. “Being edited changed how I edited and taught writing. It is humbling to see the gap between your intention as a writer and what you put on the page – that gap can be painful,” she said.
Balcárcel’s experiences in the publishing world has made the authorial process real for her TCC students. “I share with my students all the editing work I do throughout the publishing process. I can show them my query letter and explain how it works.”
Spoken like a true teacher.