The Writing Life

Guest Post: The Joys (and Perils) of Writing a Series by Aya de Leon

Today we welcome debut author Aya de Leon to the blog — she’s a fellow former Debutante at The Debutante Ball, a publishing blog that I was a member of in 2015. It’s a fun read — tracking the journey of five first-time authors over the course of their debut year. Check it out if you haven’t already!

Aya’s first book, Uptown Thief, kicked the start of her Justice Hustlers series. As she launches book two, The Boss, she’s taking a moment to talk to us today about the joys (and perils) of maintaining a series.

The Boss by Aya de LeonWhen my agent and I were trying to sell my debut novel, Uptown Thief, we had no idea where it might get published. The plot revolved around a heist. It had a classic romantic arc with a happy ending. But it was a gritty, urban tale of poverty and violence. Yet it was a Robin Hood story, about a band of women stealing from corrupt corporate CEOs and billionaires to support a health clinic for sex workers. Somehow the book was simultaneously light and sexy, but with the political content of an intersectional feminist manifesto. Also, considering the fact that I’m still paying off my student loans from an MFA in fiction, I certainly hope that the quality of the writing is good.

My agent is well connected in New York City’s literary industry. I know this from the scores of warm and enthusiastic emails she forwarded to me where her colleagues turned down my book. Just when I was ready to give up hope, I got a call from my agent that Kensington Books was interested. They wanted to know if I had a series proposal. I sent in a few brief synopses of different book ideas, and they bought Uptown Thief in a two-book deal. Less than six months after the debut was published, I had a second two-book deal, for a total of four books in four years.

So here I am, less than ten months after the publication of my first book, and my second book is coming out in two weeks. This is incredibly exciting, but also overwhelming. I’m a working mom with a full-time college teaching load. Last year, when I was preparing for my debut novel to come out, and the second book was due, I thought I would drown in the workload. I called my agent. “I don’t think I can do this,” I told her. “Can they push back my publication date?” But the editor talked me down. I didn’t need to send finished work by the spring deadline. I only needed to send something rough, so they could get enough of an idea of the story to develop marketing materials—a cover, the jacket copy—and schedule it in the queue.

Also, while the first book took eight years to write, the second book could be written much more quickly. In the first book, I was figuring out a winning structure and formula. I was developing my version of a sexy, political, character-driven heist for women. For the second book, I simply needed to replicate the same type of journey, but for a different character. Fortunately for me, Kensington/Dafina frequently uses a standalone/series format, where each book has a different protagonist among a close-knit group of characters. This is a great format, because after the first book, there was nowhere interesting for my main character, Marisol, to go. I could certainly create another interesting plot, but the character had taken her life-changing journey and was forever transformed. But I had already done the heavy lifting to create a world and a group of characters I liked. So Tyesha, a secondary protagonist of Uptown Thief is the protagonist of the second book, The Boss. In book 2, I replicated the formula: the protagonist has to plan a heist to protect and serve others in her work community; she also faces urgent pressure and drama in her family; and she has a romantic journey.

Writing a book a year would be incredibly daunting if I didn’t have a formula to follow. It would be even more intimidating if I were expected to be writing a great work of literary merit. However, the executive editor of Dafina, Selena James says, “We don’t publish Toni Morrison here; this is entertainment.” In writing a book a year, it’s helpful to have a lower bar than winning the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes. However, the pressure for quality is replaced by the pressure for quantity. James also says, “If you’re off the radar for more than a year, readers will find something to replace you.”

Fortunately for everyone involved, I have learned that I can write fast. I use the NaNoWriMo method to crank out a really rough first draft. National Novel Writing Month happens every November, where people from all over try to write a whole 50,000 word novel in a month. With this four-book commitment, I have taken on NaNoWriMo as a way of life.

Ultimately, a four-book deal has meant that I have to hold four books in my head at once. Like right now, there’s the fourth book in the series, which I am conceptualizing. Meanwhile, I’m actually under deadline to be writing the third book. I turned in my really rough draft last month. I’m in the thick of promoting the second book at less than a month from launch. And finally, I’m still dealing with book one in the best way… it won an Independent Publisher “IPPY” award! This was just one of several awards I applied for. A writer friend, Toni Ann Johnson, used the strategy of applying for prizes as a way to promote her debut novel, which was also published with an independent press. It certainly worked. She won an award and got an agent. So I’m trying the same strategy. Although some awards I won’t even hear about until after my second book is published.

Mine isn’t even the most grueling publication schedule I know of. My books are categorized as Urban Women’s Fiction. It has a romantic arc, but it’s not categorized as straight up romance. Those readers are notoriously voracious. According to one romance author Jamie Brenner, romance novels are “a much higher-volume business model—three books a year minimum to keep yourself in the mix.” Three books a year? I can’t imagine it. And some authors do even more. Meanwhile, with the advent of ebooks, there really isn’t any limit on the number of books an author can publish, because publishers don’t need to take the time to print anything. However, there is a downside, according to Brenner, in terms of quality: “The books are getting worse when they’re coming out closer together….it’s a really bad trend.”

But not every series publisher demands such a high volume. Many don’t even require a book a year. For many authors, that would be a miserable amount of pressure. And a good series is worth waiting for. But for me as a writer, a book a year is perfect. I’m starting to settle into a seasonal routine: winter is for first drafts, spring is for revision and promotion; summer is for publication and book parties! fall is for editing and outlining, as I go back into the classroom. And then the cycle starts again. If anyone wants to know about the financials, it’s not enough to live on (unless perhaps you were sleeping on someone’s couch where the cost of living was very low). So it’s not a living, but it’s a life. A writer’s life. And I love it.

Aya de Leon Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program, teaching poetry and spoken word in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Reductress, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, Quartz, The Honest Courtesan, Hip Mama, and BuzzFeed. She blogs and tweets about culture, gender, and race at @AyadeLeon and The first two books of her Justice Hustler series, Uptown Thief and The Boss, are available via Kensington Books now. 


2 Responses to Guest Post: The Joys (and Perils) of Writing a Series by Aya de Leon

  1. Cyn Vannoy May 22 2017 at 11:23 pm #

    Thanks for the great insight, Aya. And congrats on the series deal!
    I have a question about the technique you mentioned on using contests to promote & catch an agent’s eye.
    “A writer friend, Toni Ann Johnson, used the strategy of applying for prizes as a way to promote her debut novel, which was also published with an independent press. It certainly worked. She won an award and got an agent.”
    This seems to be a two-edged sword. It’s good to have kudos already under your belt (especially as an unknown author), but how can writers be certain of the fine-print legalese on contests? I’ve been interested in several along my own journey with a literary series, but I worry about unknowingly signing away my rights to my own work!
    The horror stories are out there; not just of unscrupulous publishers, but also of agents/publishers down the road who won’t accept material previously published on another platform.

    • Aya de Leon May 23 2017 at 10:45 am #

      There are different types of contests. Many are for unpublished manuscripts, which often offer the prize of publication. Make sure it’s a press with which you would want to be published. I’m referring to book contests, which are for published books. They sometimes offer cash prizes, but more often prestige, promotion, and bragging rights.

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