Let’s Get Lit Fest: Panelist Author Interviews with Alechia Dow, Rena Barron, Namina Forna, and Jordan Ifueko!

Welcome to the panelist interview portion of the Let’s Get Lit fest Black authors week! I had the pleasure to interview these incredible authors, and I’m still reeling from being able to work with them! Check out their great advice for aspiring authors everywhere.

Me: Introduce yourself and explain what experience you have in the writing industry.

Alechia Dow: Hi! My name is Alechia Dow! I’m the author of The Sound of Stars (which came out Feb 25th this year), and The Kindred, which will come out Winter 2022, both from Inkyard Press/HarperCollins. Writing has always been a part of my life. I wrote stories as a kid, and into adulthood. My concentration in pastry school was writing, and I was able to become a food critic at one point (which was AWESOME). However, I didn’t write fiction to pursue publication till 2016. I queried, hit a lot of roadblocks, and then got a mentorship opportunity from Justina Ireland’s Writing in the Margins. My mentor was Tamara Mataya and she helped me become so much better as a writer. In 2017, I applied to Pitch Wars, didn’t get in. Pitched in Pitmad a few weeks later, and I had a few offers a week later. It was tumultuous, and often I feel immensely grateful for all the opportunities I had along the way to not only hone my craft (or learn it, ha!), but put myself and my work out there.

Rena Barron: Hello! My name is Rena Barron. I’m the author of Kingdom of Souls and the forthcoming Maya and the Rising Dark. My publishing experience has been a whirlwind, yet it’s also very typical of the industry. Before HarperTeen acquired Kingdom of Souls, I spent 10 years in the query trends writing across multiple genres and age groups in the pursuit of publication. In 2017, I entered Pitch Wars, an online mentorship program that included an agent showcase round. My entry (then titled “The Last Witchdoctor”) received multiple offers of representation. I signed with Suzie Townsend at New Leaf Literary shortly after, and she sold Kingdom of Souls at auction. A few months later, she sold Maya and the Rising Dark in a pre-empt deal to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Since then, my life has been a flurry of deadline after deadline, but I’m so thankful that I get to write and publish my strange little books.

Namina Forna: Hello, my name is Namina Forna, I’m a screenwriter based in Los Angeles and the author of the upcoming YA fantasy novel The Gilded Ones.

Jordan Ifueko: Hi, I’m Jordan Ifueko! I’m a YA Fantasy writer with my debut novel, RAYBEARER, coming out on August 18.

Me: What’s something about the publishing industry that you wish you knew when you first started out?

Alechia: Be patient; books don’t get written or sold overnight, take your time, do it right, and learn along the way. AND keep your eyes on your own paper! Don’t compare yourself to others, it’s a recipe for disaster. 

Rena: I wish I would’ve known more about how publishing works behind the scene.

Namina: How dire the odds were for people of color. I started querying over a decade ago, and back then, it was darn near impossible for a black person to get a YA fantasy book deal. I kept querying on a hope and a prayer. If I’d understood what I was up against then, I would have been more forgiving to myself every time I came up against a wall.

Jordan: How much effort the authors still need to put into promoting their book! I was under the impression that getting traditionally published meant that your publisher did all of that while you scribbled away. Nope– it’s still a serious time commitment.

Me: Do you have any challenges you’ve faced, personally or professionally, in the industry as a Black author that you’d like to vocalize?

Alechia: I’ve had folks tell me to write white main characters or to write more sympathetic white characters or else I’ll never sell a book. Both of these are catering to the white gaze as if that’s our primary audience–––but black teens need and read books too. POC teens need and read books too. And white teens, I believe with my whole heart, need and will read a book with BlPOC teens as the main characters just as BlPOC teens have been doing with white characters in the past.

Rena: Sometimes it feels like people want us to dress up characters to fit their expectations, instead of going into a book and letting the characters give them a glimpse into a different mindset, place, culture, etc.

Namina: Certainly. When I began writing, it was the industry perception that people weren’t interested in books with minority protagonists. Like many authors of color, I had to fight against doors that weren’t prepared or even willing to open to people like me. I’m very grateful times have changed since then, and hopeful they remain this way.

Jordan: As a Black author, your work will often get compared to other work, even when there are no similarities between your novel besides them both involving “Blackness” or “Africanness.” That can get annoying. There’s also a pressure to overexpress your own Blackness in your work because you know that’s what people will be expecting.

Me: Did you come across any surprises in the making of your book?

Alechia: Line edits. Line edits were more intense than developmental edits!! I was surprised, but also grateful for my thoughtful and detailed editor, Natashya Wilson at Inkyard. Her attention made sure no one (including me) got lost, and allowed us to put out the very best version of the story!

Rena: Not really any surprises, but I have learned to embrace that each manuscript takes a lot of hard work across multiple edit rounds.

Namina: How long it takes to get from initial sale to finally coming out in bookstores.

I thought when I sold my book that it would come out later that year. Boy, was I wrong. It takes 2-3 years for a book to come out. It has to go through multiple edits, printing, sending out arcs, etc. And little ‘ol me thought I’d have mine out in one. I chuckle every time I think about that. 

Jordan: In the original drafts, which I began when I was 13, the dichotomies in the novel are very “good kingdom vs evil forces” and “rightful heir vs usurper.” But as I grew up, the story morphed to match my maturing understanding of the world–which is that good vs evil is rarely as clear cut as those with power would have you believe it, and that anyone who insists on the right to rule any people based on arbitrary characteristics should be given serious side-eye (if not a swift kick to the pants).

Me: Do you know any helpful facts about the industry common writers might not know about?

Alechia: I sometimes feel like a complete novice in this industry, so no. I’m learning as I go!

Rena: Don’t get caught up in the hype and learn how to parse out the irrelevant things that distract from your goals. I’m often dismayed by the sentiment that people need to be published by 30, or it’s bust. That’s ridiculous. The numbers show that many successful authors published their first book after 30, yet every year, I see the same conversation and despair from writers worried about that. Forget it and focus your energy on writing.

Namina: Yes! Twitter competitions like #DVPit and #Pitmad are easy and accessible ways for agents to find your work. Make sure that you have help on your pitches beforehand, however.

Also, use the Official Manuscript Wish List to find what agents are currently interested in acquiring. For instance, if you have a southern gothic middle grade, you can search to see which agents want to read that sort of work. 

Jordan: I didn’t know how much of my general sanity would rely on me making friends with other published/debut writers. So much about the ongoing publication and release process is kept in the dark (either intentionally or unintentionally) and when you pool together your knowledge, you get a better sense of who is getting promoted properly and who is getting ripped off/underpromoted/underpaid. Then you can rally around that person to make sure they get their due. One thing I’ve loved recently is when male writers offer to tell me how much they are making for certain tasks (school visits, etc) because men are often paid more than women for the same appearance. When that knowledge is made general, disadvantaged demographics know to insist on being paid more.

I also really want to encourage writers not to be disappointed if they don’t get a Big Five publisher. Every debut author I know who got a “Big 5” is having way more trouble than I currently am with my Major Indie (Amulet). They feel like they have to holler for their publisher to pay attention to them and promote their book properly, because they’re a debut. I’m sure there are a lot of factors, but my guess is their Big Publisher is busy promoting books by big fish so they can afford to undersell newcomers. Meanwhile, I’ve never felt ignored by my Major Indie, which I’m sure is partly a stroke of luck, but also a perk of being distributed by a publisher small enough to show each of their authors more consideration.

Me: Do you feel like your writing paves the way for others in your community?

Alechia: That’s a tough question. I want to believe that I, as a big, black, queer author who writes big, black, queer characters in a genre that we don’t tend to see ourselves as the main character, could possibly pave the way for others. But, I don’t know if my books are that much of a game-changer for this industry. I hope it inspires others in my community to write about us, that it shows other writers that it can be done. I want more books about us!!

Rena: We need more books about people of color that are not centered around oppression. Many people are writing them, and readers want them, but there seems to be a disconnect somewhere in the process. We’ve seen more these past couple of years, but not enough. I hope that my book helps push for that change in some small way.

Namina: Definitely so. There are precious few black and POC female authors, and I think that every time a book comes out that’s written by one of us, someone somewhere realizes that they can do it too. Our work shows people that our worlds aren’t that different or impenetrable, and that kids from all across the globe can invest in them just as much as they invest in other authors’ works.

Jordan: I certainly would hope so, in that they might feel inspired to write in genres in which they aren’t usually represented. But the gatekeepers need to make a lot more progress to let those stories in.

Me: What were some of the best surprises you’ve had getting into the industry?

Alechia: There are so many kind and supportive authors who WANT you to succeed. It can seem otherwise on social media, but there is a community, especially of black writers, who will be there for you. Who will answer questions, help you make decisions, and offer their advice. Who will boost you and listen to you when you doubt yourself. That was the best surprise in this industry, because writing can sometimes feel lonely, and later on, so does promotion.

Rena: My biggest surprise was when Michael B. Jordan’s production company, Outlier Society, reached out about film rights for Kingdom of Souls.

Namina: Finding my community. Going through this journey has allowed me to connect not only with other writers, but with readers as well. The most wonderful thing about the past year has been meeting all these people I’ve only ever seen or spoken to via social media. It makes me feel very happy to be so connected to bookish people.

Jordan: How eager my publisher was to promote my book. I’ve heard so many horror stories of publishers signing a book and then sort of leaving it to languish with lukewarm promotion, which showering all their resources on a few dearies.

Me: What experiences have you had that you’d like to avoid repeating?

Alechia: I used to be afraid of making difficult decisions and would put them off as long as I could—to my own detriment. Even after I made them, I would sit there, doubting myself. I’ve learned since, that if I follow my gut, really listen to it, I know why l feel the way I feel, and why I need to make a decision. That this is about my career, and my professional well-being. It’s hard, but being sure of yourself is something you need to be in this industry. 

Rena: I definitely regret neglecting my health after getting my first deal, which ended up causing some permanent damage to my body.

Namina: Having the wrong representation.

The first person who ever represented me was very wrong for me. They didn’t understand me or my work and tried to push me to what they thought I should be. My career stalled for years because of this, and I almost quit writing. I learned from this to be always careful about who I choose to represent me. 

Jordan: I honestly don’t have many regrets so far, but I’ve been very, very lucky. My agent and publishing team were a great fit for me from the get-go, and that doesn’t always happen. I know one very successful writer who recently had to fire their entire team.

Me: Do you see yourself staying in this industry for a long time?

Alechia: I certainly hope so! I’m trying.

Rena: Longevity in this industry is really hard, but I hope that I can share my stories for many years to come.

Namina: Very much so! All I’ve ever wanted to do in life is write. I literally can’t see myself doing anything else. 

Jordan: I certainly hope so. It’s rough, but I’ve felt more at home doing this than nearly anything else.

Me: Do you have any advice for people just getting into this industry?

Alechia: Yes! Keep writing. Rejection is discouraging, but we all experience it—believe me. The only thing you can control in this industry are the words that you put down on the page. If writing makes you happy, if you feel good doing it, keep writing. That, in itself, is a huge success.

Rena: Be patient, work on improving your craft, and find one or two writing friends to share your joys and frustrations without judgment.

Namina: Aim for 500 rejections. Wear them as a badge of honor. Every time you get one, remind yourself, it’s another one down to my goal. Because every rejection gets you closer and makes you a better writer.

Jordan: If you want to make connections as an emerging novelist, publish short stories in online lit mags! If you get into the right publications, you can get a lot of attention that way. It’s actually how my agent found me.

I’ve had so much fun hosting these events for the Let’s Get Lit fest, and I’d like to thank everyone involved in making this happen. Keep an eye out for Arina’s blog for LGBTQ+ week starting up soon!

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