If you’ve read my first blog post of 2019, you know that one of this year’s goals is to continue to network and engage with the fabulous #writerscommunity that has utterly embraced me. Through it, I’ve connected with so many exceptional writers who inspire me and others daily. With this in mind, I’d like to present the first of my #inklinginterviews series in which I ask amazing writers I’ve connected with about themselves and their journey. I didn’t plan for my first interview to fall on MLKJ Day, but I’m so glad it does because this interview sets a tone. First up, my lovely and powerful friend, Jess Lauren a.k.a. J.Elle.
Black Ink: Jess
Wine Ink: Ayana
Okay, first question: where are you at in your writing journey, and how did you get there?
I am currently in the revision phase with my agent preparing the final tweaks before going on submission.
My first pitch of the day received 300+ LIKES and requests from 20+ editors at pubs. I took a several days to wrap my head around things and started sorting out who to query. I received multiple agent offers (and multiple rejections). For those of you out there still querying–R’s are just part of it! Keep pushing. And though I was super grateful to have multiple agents excited about my story, it was incredibly stressful and difficult to narrow things down.
I ended up signing with the agent* who’s editorial vision, YA fantasy experience, client list size, and communication style aligned most with what I was looking for. And every single day I’m reminded how passionate she is about my story!
So, of course, I’m now dying to know all about this 35-day project that got you an agent (congrats!) and so much attention! Can you pitch it for us, and most importantly, are there aesthetics?
My current project is #WingsOfEbony, a YA fantasy novel about a black teen from the hood that learns she’s half-human, half-goddess. She uncovers racist gods poisoning her block and must tap into her goddess heritage to unlock powers to destroy them.
See the full pitch and outpouring of community support HERE. And aesthetics are my JAM! Here’s a fave!
Um, I don’t even have words to describe how cool this story sounds and looks. This project definitely feels like something with distinct style. In a word or two, what is your writing style?
(I’m not sure I know how to say anything in a word or two.)
My readers describe my style as, “Angsty. Sharp. In your face emotions that demand to be felt. Lots of dialogue. Emphasis on character growth and what they’ve been through in the past. Tighter sentences and fast-paced plot.”
My style tends to be heavily influenced by where and how I grew up. I lived in two worlds and that pervades my writing. I grew up in one of the poorest parts of H-town, wrought with drugs and crime. And still, I’m proud of where I’m from and the things I learned living there.
That was half my world.
The other half was school.
For 6 years of my education I attended an elite private school with the richest kids in town on a scholarship. I was one of 3 black kids and the only poor one among them. It was shocking to see where I lived and juxtapose that with how my classmates lived. And I mean, I attended elementary in the 90s and yet still dealt with being called a nigger everyday by white student peers. Not all of them. To be clear. One of my BFFs there was a little white girl. She had the sweetest parents, but she wasn’t allowed to come to my house because you know– I lived in the “sketchy part of town.”
But, back to the living in two worlds. Racism is not dead.
So you’ll find a lot of my stories explore racial prejudices through heroines from marginalized perspectives. I think talking about race is important. I don’t want people to say they see me and don’t see my race. No. I want you to see me AND see my Blackness AND have that be okay.
I am Black.
It’s not a bad word.
It’s mine. I’m proud of it. See it.
“See me as I am…not as you would have me.”
(That’s a sneak peek line from Wings of Ebony. There’s a poem at the end dedicated to my people and that’s probably my favorite line from it.)
So often, people refrain from having those tougher conversations, so sometimes exploring them in fiction feels safer, more approachable. I love using fiction to spark those discussions. Not for further division. For the sake of unity.
We can’t learn to really SEE each other if we don’t learn to really TALK to each other.
I also tend to weave in themes of suppressed hurts in my work—more nuanced themes of how we deal with pain, forgiveness, healing, and joy. Those things have shaped who I am and so they weasel their way into my writing whether I like it or not.
My goal for my readers is simple:
- To make you think
- To set you on fire to stand for change
My readers are the future glass shatterers of our world–and they will be fearless. They will be fire!
(Oh, and there’s always food in my books! Always.)
I’m floored. Thank you for getting deep with us. We need more conversations like this. To continue the subject of writing itself, what are favorite and least favorite parts of the process?
I hate the part I’m in ha ha. I am always swooning at people in the drafting phase when I’m revising. And vice versa. I’d say my favorite part is the second draft, once you really see what the story is capable of being. The first draft is really a mess and more of figuring the story out. But by the end of developmental edits, the second draft really begins to shine. It makes me super excited to really make it sparkle!
Where do you find inspiration for your stories?
Life. Pain. Joy. Hopes. Dreams. Fears. I like stories that parallel what’s inside us– the stuff we want to pretend we don’t feel nagging at us all the time. I like my stories to bring out the emotions we try to suppress. For the sake of dealing with them and healing.
If my book doesn’t rip me apart while I write it, I didn’t do it right.
It sounds like you absolutely pour yourself into your work, which is so beautiful, but begs another question: how do you manage life and other responsibilities alongside your writing?
Who said I manage?! *bug eyes emoji* LOL!!
Uhhh, it’s a challenge. Balance is the key and I suck at it, frankly. I wrote Wings of Ebony in 35 days. I literally wrote 10-12 hours a day and did nothing else but keep little people alive. This year, I’m decidedly doing things differently. I am striving to write during dedicated hours and really prioritize more time with my family because I mean– what’s this all for if I never stop to enjoy it? Life flies by.
That it does. So, as you write, how do you combat writer’s block and tough critiques of your work?
I’m finding the more I write the more I crave the burn of tough critiques. I am a very analytical thinker. So I like to almost quantify feedback. However, I don’t jump at the second I get a bit of it. I sit on [a critique] to see if it resonates. I see if other readers had similar things to say. Where I find commonalities in feedback—I know I have a problem. Still, some feedback is isolated and still pure gold.
I have a group of beta readers and critique partners and I LOVE them. Without them, none of my words would be worth even reading ha ha. I like to say I draft like a cheetah but revise like a phoenix. Editing is everything, and the best critiques I’ve had have been the hardest. I do NOT believe critiques need to be done harshly. (Like, who has time for that BS? Not I.) Be a nice human while you do it– but be honest from a place of genuine interest in helping other writers grow.
I appreciate the blunt feedback. Really, it comes down to not being overly-precious about my work. I’m calling out Sarah Janian, who didn’t know me from Adam, but came alongside me and burned my [manuscript] apart with honest, straightforward words. No sugar. I’m like, “Sarah—did you like it?” She was like: “OH GOSH YES, everything I didn’t comment on I LOVED. HA HA!” And since then, she’s become a solid writing bestie I couldn’t imagine life without. My work is so much stronger because of it. She showed me weaknesses I didn’t know it had. When you’re too close to the story, you miss stuff. And remember, you are not your work. A critique about your work isn’t a critique about you personally. We have to learn to continue to grow.
Being teachable can be your greatest asset.
Writer’s block. Hmmm. I read. I just get lost in a book and eventually something comes. I honestly think my brain and/or body is telling me to chill when I can’t write. I need a break and I’m too stubborn to take one, so my writing brain is like NOPE, I’M DONE for a bit. LOL
Critique partners are everything.
Okay, let’s do a fun question. Actually, a “would you rather” question. Would you rather…time travel a century into the past, or the future—and why?
GAH. So I have a total crush on historical fiction. I could never write it and do it justice but goodness I love it. So I guess I’m going back in time. EEEEK! Do I get to pick what time period????!!! Wait, is this really happening?
We’ll follow up on time periods one day! As for writing, there is so much good (and bad) advice for writers out there. What’s your advice for aspiring writers, especially from underrepresented backgrounds?
Connect with other writers.
As cliche as it sounds, let me make my grandma roll over in her grave when I say:
YOU WILL HAVE TO BE TWICE AS GOOD, AND WORK TWICE AS HARD.
It’s the truth. Listen, there are people willing and hungry to go to bat for you. Network. But not in a one sided way. Really connect with people. Invest your heart and mind in this community and watch it pour back ten fold.
There are so many others that feel exactly like you feel. I’m sure some people aren’t looking to help others. But I can honestly say every single agented author of color I’ve met — and even POC author’s with a book deal that I’ve met–are eager to give back and pour into others. I’m sure there’s someone this doesn’t apply to, but focus instead on this: there are plenty of POC writers that DO care and are happy to look over your query, help you tweak your pitch, send you some great resource links for honing your craft.
Don’t look at authors who’ve “made it” and think: “Oh they didn’t need help. No one looked over their work or gave them feedback.” I’d find that quite hard to believe. This is an industry built on community. Some agents/agented writers/published writers that personally stepped in specifically to help me as a POC writer trying to find an agent: Beth Phelan (helloooo #DVPit), Eric Smith, Ryan La Sala, Alechia Dow, Nic Stone (MY GOODNESS THIS WOMAN IS AMAZING!), Olivia Cole, Natasha Bowen, Mark O’Brien, Brittany Morris, Fallon DeMornay, Sarah Janian, and so many more.
People want to help. I want to help.
Writing-related questions? My DMs are open. @AuthorJ_Elle
Get connected and ask.
Also, stop tripping about sharing your work. It’s scary. I KNOW. I feel the SAME way. I swear I do. Do it anyway and grow with each critique. It’s a thick-skinned business, so start now. Here’s a PDF on How To Digest & Organize Beta Feedback. More resources in the For Writers tab of my website.
Solid advice that we need to hear more. Okay, another fun question: What’s your “anthem,” the song that would play if your life was a music video?
Oh gosh, I’d have to think. So hard to pick!
Probably something by Beyoncé. LOL
To be fair, she is the Queen. And now, a bonus question! Describe THE perfect meal, according to Jess.
Okay as a foodie this is probably the most exciting question I’ve answered. It would involve lots of veggies because that’s my jam. Protein would be chicken or fish bc I love both. And the starch would be something loaded with butter. I enjoy a lemony acidic profile to my foods. Anything with capers, sign me up. Paired with a wine. Gah I love food.
And then desert–I like rich but small portions. Nothing overly sweet.
Top 3 desserts I’ll never turn down:
- Crème Brûlée
- Homemade Rustic Apple Pie
And now I’m starving. Thanks! Ha
Wow. I knew when I approached Jess about doing this interview that it would likely be a powerful discussion and I was right! Thanks, Jess! Set the world on fire!
Do you want know more about about Jess and Wings of Ebony?
Get J.Elle’s inside scoop on book news: HERE
Also connect with her on Twitter!
Next week’s interview: @JLew100 on January 28th!