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Claribel A. Ortega brings cozy fantasy vibes with new middle-grade series

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Photo courtesy of the author
Photo courtesy of the author

Halloween novels can be great for a good scare, but sometimes, the most frightening part of a good spooky story happens off the pages. For YA and middle-grade writer Claribel A. Ortega, the scariest part of their fantasy novels has been the publishing process.

The never-ending nightmare of publishing
"My process was pretty much a roller coaster," they said. "There were a lot of twists and turns. Nothing turned out the way I expected it to, but I feel like that's how it is with most authors."

Ortega knew they wanted to be a writer in the early 2010s and began working on their first novel. By 2016, they had a finished manuscript and sought to publish their work. Ortega found an agent quickly but unfortunately couldn't get their book to sell.

Image courtesy of Scholastic Press  

"I parted ways with my agent, and I found a new agent pretty quickly after, [then] wrote and sold Ghost Squad in 2017, and it took a couple of years to come out. It was published in 2020."

Finally seeing their first novel on shelves was a testament to Ortega's tenacity. They refused to give up, despite the many pushbacks they faced.

"Along the way, there were a lot of things [that went wrong]," they said. Having to switch agents was just the beginning. "I almost signed with a scam publishing company at one point. They turned out to be a husband and wife in their house catfishing as their authors — pretending to be them — and sending emails and phone calls with other authors, convincing them to come on.... It was pretty wild."

Despite the setbacks, their hard work paid off, and Ortega has a newfound appreciation for those who have had the guts to get through the muck of the publishing world. "It was a very twisty journey. Aside from the catfishing publisher, it isn't unusual to have a lot of things happen. There's a lot of people who deal with stuff like that," they said.

"[In] publishing, you are dealing with people whose dreams are for sale. When you're a new author, you see everything through these rose-colored glasses, and your writing is so important to you, and people can prey on those feelings and on your dream of writing books. I think it is rife with scams, and it is important to talk about it, so authors don't fall prey to that."

Image courtesy of Scholastic Press  

A new writing process emerges
In April of 2022, Ortega's second novel, Witchlings, came out. With many difficult lessons learned from their first daunting dive into publishing, Ortega used a different tactic with Witchlings.

"For Witchlings [my writing process] did [change]. Sort of in the revision stages, though," they said. "Before Witchlings, I was what's known as a pantser. So, I sort of just flew by the seat of my pants, which is where the expression comes from. I just wrote whatever came to me. I had a general outline, always, when I wrote a book, but just... a paragraph or two with a synopsis of what happens."

With tighter deadlines to work with the second time around, Ortega decided to switch up their strategy. "I realized how much revision that leads to, and once you're on deadline and have multiple projects, as I do, time becomes scarce. I started to outline a lot more heavily once I got into the revision process with Witchlings. Once the book sold, I started working on it with my editor."

Ortega now swears by outlining, and says the updated process has helped them stay more organized in their writing process. "Now I do a chapter-by-chapter outline. Each chapter is intensely outlined. I know exactly what's happening in each chapter, and I go in, I revise, and I write. That way, I have a guide. It doesn't always go the way I planned it, but that makes it a lot easier and less time-consuming."

While Ortega is a detail-oriented planner when it comes to their drafts, the inspiration for their stories is a lot more free-flowing.

"Each story depends on how [it] comes to me. I don't sit down and go, 'I want to write a fantasy about this and this.' It's usually just like the plot comes to me first. Like, 'Oh, what if there was a story about a girl who doesn't get into a traditional coven?'" they said.

The style of her YA and middle-grade novels tends to change depending on the ideas Ortega gets. "Whatever voice the characters have when they come to me is what I write them in. So, for Witchlings, it was very clearly middle-grade. Actually, the very first thing that inspired me to write the book, or that came to me, was the first line of the book, which is: 'It was the night of the Black Moon Ceremony, and the very last thing Seven Salazar wanted was to be a spare witch,' and that just sounds middle-grade."

Move over Harry Potter, being special is boring
Ortega has a talent for writing novels for older children. "I think middle-grade voice also really comes naturally to me. I enjoy writing both YA and middle-grade, but I think I feel the most comfortable writing in middle-grade. I tend to get a lot of story ideas that live in that world."

The Witchlings story first came to Ortega as the antithesis of a popular middle-grade fantasy trope. "Witchlings was inspired by a couple of different things," they said. "I think in the very beginning, I just wanted to [write] a magical story about a kid who was the opposite of the chosen one. So, in the story, the main character, Seven, is a spare witch, which means she's sorted into a coven of leftover witches. She doesn't belong with anyone else, except the other two leftovers, Valley and Thorn."

As Ortega worked on the story, they started to notice parallels between the idea of a "leftover witch" and current events. "As time went on, it was also informed by things that were happening in the media and... other stories that I grew up with that I didn't feel like I could rely on on anymore. I wanted to write an alternative to those stories, from a place of love and understanding and for every kid to belong."

Writing about identity in a way that kids could digest was very important for Ortega as well. "I'm a Queer Nonbinary person, and it was really important for me to talk about those things in the story in a way that wasn't directly talking about them. That feeling of being left out and not belonging anywhere, or being ashamed of who you are, came both from my queerness and also being a diaspora kid and feeling like I never really had a home one way or another. I think all of those things inspired Witchlings — as well as the Hudson Valley, because Ravenskill and all the twelve towns are based on the river towns along the Hudson River in New York."

LGBTQ+ representation
While Ortega uses the metaphor of magical misfits as a stand-in for queerness and gender identity, they also include explicitly LGBTQ+ main characters. "As soon as I started writing Valley Peppercorn, who is Seven's bully in the book and ends up being in her coven — which is not a spoiler, it happens immediately — I always knew that she was Queer. ...In writing her, it just sort of happened naturally. In the first book, there is queercoding that is a little more subtle, but in the second, there are full-on crushes and girlfriends and all of that, so I'm very excited to get to that. ...It's going to be great," they gushed.

Photo courtesy of First Second  

They are already excited about the second Witchlings novel, which is slated to come out on May 2, 2023. Fans of Ortega do not have to wait until the new year to get their hands on more of her work, however. On October 18, Ortega's first graphic novel, Frizzy, hit the shelves.

"[Frizzy] is about a young Dominican-American girl named Marlene, who is tired of getting her hair straightened at the salon every weekend and goes on a journey to wear her hair naturally, and it doesn't go according to plan," they said.

Fans of Ortega's can expect to see more LGBTQ+ and Dominican-American representation in their future work as well. "I just so happen to be Dominican-American, and those are the stories that I love to write and feel most comfortable writing," they said.

As promised, the next Witchlings novel is also shaping out to be much Queerer. "The Golden Frog Games is the next book in the Witchlings series. It is all about a magical competition in Ravenskill where Thorn LaRue is the first spare champion competing in the fashion trials. ...Then her competitors start getting turned into stone by a serial hexer, and the witchlings need to figure out who it is, because Thorn might be next!"

Ortega is busy with many more projects in the pipeline as well. They are not able to disclose much about their other future works but assure readers everything to come is very Gay. As they become more and more comfortable in the public eye, Ortega can put more of themself into their work.

"It's only going to be more intense. I think there's sort of fear at first, I think similar to when I first started writing. All of my characters just happened to be white, because that's what I was used to reading. It wasn't until I started to read more fiction by people of color that I felt like I had permission to do that. It's always scary, because you open yourself up to another world, a wonderful world of readers, but also of things that are not so great. But the young adult novel I am working on is a sapphic murder mystery fantasy, so I am very pumped about that one."

Heavier plotlines
The more of themself they put into their work, the more readers take away from it, Ortega notices. They hope readers can find the messages they are looking for. "I just hope they take away whatever they need to take away from it. I think every reader is different," they said.

Ortega warns that the plotlines of their first novel in the new series can get a little deep but believes they are necessary, especially for younger readers who may find themselves in a similar situation: "There are some storylines that are a little bit heavier in the book. If any kid is going through any sort of abuse at home or knows someone who is going through that, Witchlings is a good tool for them to deal with that. It's something that happens in the book.

"I just really hope they can enjoy it and that they can escape for a little while and that they fall in love with the characters the way that I did."

Aside from some of the heavier plots, Ortega says Witchlings is also a fun escape from reality. "It gives much-needed happiness in this world where we have a lot of bad news. ...There's a lot that goes on in the book, but at its core, it is a cozy fantasy, and I think that it gives you that warm, fuzzy feeling when you read it... That's my biggest hope."

Witchlings is just the right book for fans of Halloween fantasy who may not want to dive into the clutches of the horror genre. As Ortega admitted, "I love watching, I would say, semi-scary movies. I am a chicken and I can't handle anything too scary. Anything that lives in the Hocus Pocus or Halloweentown realm, I love it. I just love that feeling of safe scary movies, where you know nothing is going to happen, but you still feel a little bit creeped out. Those are probably my faves."

For any readers fascinated by the fantastical worlds of The Owl House and Harry Potter, Witchlings is the perfect cozy series to start this Halloween.