Advice For Aspiring Black Writers, From Black Writers

It’s lit

In celebration of Black History Month, NYLON is running a spotlight series called UNAPOLOGETIC. Every day, we’ll celebrate different aspects of black culture through profiles, interviews, roundtables, reviews, videos, and op-eds. #Blacklivesmatter and we hold that truth to be self-evident.

For any person of color trying to navigate a predominantly white space, things can get, well, lonely. But more than that, things can seem hopeless, especially for those starting out. When you don’t see people who look like you succeeding, it’s hard to picture yourself doing the same.  

Luckily, the publishing space is becoming browner. There are more and more black men and women authors putting out work that reflects their experiences, and getting the recognition they deserve for it.

To help those in need of a little push, we reached out to some of said authors and had them share what advice they’d give to aspiring black writers. The tidbits range from the practical (keep writing), to the political (use the written word to communicate with the oppressed).

Read their words, ahead.

Natashia Deon, author of Grace

"Write magic. Write the story you’d love to read but most of all, write the story you feel you must write because no one can do it like you can. Even on days you’re sure that’s a lie. Write as if no one has ever written on the subject before. The same is not identical. Learn the difference by reading, living, and traveling, even if that's just to the town next door. Discover the thing that only you, because of your life and experience, would know. Three people standing in the same room watching the same event will experience it differently. Show us why God put you in that room. Show us the piece of the puzzle that only you’re holding. Help humanity to understand itself better. We need your wisdom. But if you’re writing primarily to make money and not for the art, the significant responsibility, or the love, forget everything I’ve just said and simply do what’s been done well before and build a platform that’ll get you seen."

Jesmyn Ward, author of The Fire This Time

"Persist. This is a hard business to navigate: Writers in general, and black writers in particular, will face a lot of rejection in publishing. You have two tasks as a writer: the first is to do the work. Hone your craft: read, write, revise, repeat. Enrich your voice. Become the best writer you can be. Your second task is to submit your work. Brave rejection after rejection after rejection until you find the one person in publishing who says yes, who understands and believes in your work and will open the door for you. You can weather a thousand noes; all you need is one yes."

Mychal Denzel Smith, author of Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education

"I'm asked this question a lot, especially by younger black writers, and I often struggle because I still feel like I need so much advice myself. In response, I've always said 'keep writing,' which is the safest and, upon reflection, most useless answer. If you're a writer, you'll keep writing. Saying that doesn't require much thought on my part, and the person asking gets to walk away feeling like they engaged them. But as we face a fascist regime determined to rule on the explicit edicts of white supremacy here in the U.S., we really don't have the luxury of passing on safe and useless advice. So what I'll say now is this: Take the power of words seriously. Understand the tradition of using the written word to fight back, to speak truth to power, to communicate with the oppressed, and to reassure the marginalized they are not forgotten. This doesn't mean everything you write must be targeted at dismantling institutions of oppression—we need levity and lightheartedness to help survive these times as well—but that you understand and accept the responsibility that the written word carries, and the particular conditions that have produced the black literary condition, so that you approach everything you do with that in mind. Write, not only for the prestige, but because our very lives depend on it."

Nicole Dennis-Benn, author of Here Comes The Sun

“Be as liberal as possible in the creative process. By liberal, I mean do not edit yourself in terms of cultural references and/or over explaining. Ask yourself why you’re writing and who you’re writing for. Know in your heart that there is no such thing as one story, and therefore there will be room for you at the table. At the end of the day, your authentic voice and heart will speak to readers. Do not be deterred by rejection. Keep writing, keep knocking on doors, keep sending out work. Never have only one project that you’re working on. The minute one story gets published or rejected, there should be another one waiting in the wings.  Be serious about writing. Treat it as you would a job, not a hobby. Lastly, seek successful mentors who are invested in seeing your growth; avoid anyone who projects their journey on you and/or attempts to clip your wings once you begin to soar.”

Cole Lavalais, author of Summer of the Cicadas

"God's will, karma, and fate are all different ways to describe the plot of the human condition. Moments after our first bedtime stories, we learn life has order. When unexpected events occur, we look toward our varying belief systems, or develop belief systems, to connect meaning and impose order on those events. This order, or structure, functions as a way of mollifying the chaos of human existence, helping us to comprehend what can often be incomprehensible. Understand your audience is deeply invested in this relationship between events and meaning (plot), and your audience will both consciously and unconsciously bring those expectations to the page. As writer and architect of the worlds you create, you may choose to fulfill, complicate, and challenge the connections and disconnections between structure and meaning. You may even choose to ignore those expectations completely, but you must do it knowing that your readers will not."

Terry McMillan, author of I Almost Forgot About You

"Write as if you're telling a story to a friend. Write as if no one is ever going to read it. Don't write to compete with other writers. Don't edit while writing a draft or you'll never finish."

Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give

"I didn't want to write The Hate U Give. The characters, the setting, and the plot were first born in a short story I wrote for my senior project in college back in 2010/2011. I always knew it would be about a girl, Starr, who was living in two different worlds a lot like I was at the time—a mostly white, upper class school, and a mostly black, poor neighborhood. I also knew that she would lose her best friend at the hands of a police officer. The characters and plot were so vivid to me that, at times, it was hard to keep the short story… well, short. One of my professors encouraged me to write it as a novel after graduation. I played around with the idea, but for years I couldn't bring myself to write it. I had several reasons, though. Whether they're good or not is up for debate, but they were reasons nonetheless.

"Reason one: I had a 'heart book.' No, I don't mean a cardiology book. I mean that one idea that so many of us writers set our hearts on being THE ONE; like a soulmate in book form. Sometimes, we’ve had the idea for years. Sometimes, it takes us years to write a single draft. But we just know that it will be the one that will get us in the door. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way. For me, my heart book was a fantasy series for younger readers. I wrote and rewrote the first book for years. I also received rejection after rejection for years. The entire time, that short story from senior year kept coming back to me. But there was no way it would get me in the door of publishing. Why?

"Reason two: I was afraid it was too diverse. Unfortunately, I think a lot of marginalized writers understand this one. I am eternally grateful for We Need Diverse Books, the grassroots organization that advocates for diversity in children’s literature. It is kicking down doors and walls that have limited the lenses presented in children’s books. But the work of We Need Diverse Books is recent; it is also ongoing. As the idea of turning that short story into a novel bounced around in my head, diversity in Young Adult novels was rare. Books where black girls were more than sassy sidekicks were rare.  And books about black girls dealing with police brutality? Even rarer.

"That leads to reason three: I was afraid of it. Period. When I first wrote that short story in college, I was pissed. I was also in pain. Oscar Grant had recently lost his life in Oakland, California, and his death was a headline. It led to me hearing conversations on my college campus that made me want to scream as Oscar was blamed for his death more than the officer who pulled the trigger. Instead of screaming, I wrote. It was cathartic—I allowed all of my anger and sadness to fall into my words. I knew I’d have to do the same thing if I wrote it as a novel, and that it may make some readers uncomfortable; especially the mostly-white gatekeepers of publishing.

"I could probably list a million more reasons why I didn’t want to write The Hate U Give, but one thing outweighs them all: I had to write it for myself. I couldn’t focus on whether it would be the idea that would get me in the door. I couldn’t worry that it was too diverse. I couldn’t be concerned that it would make someone uncomfortable. I had to see it come to life on the page. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made.

"So writers, learn from my mistakes: Let your heart explore other stories, let your characters be their unapologetic selves, and write the book that you’re afraid to write. Above all, write it for yourself. You won’t regret it."

Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman

"Keep going. Honor your own sadness and frustration, but keep going. Even when your work is met with blank stares, or misunderstanding. Write about what you wish to write about, not what people tell you you ought to write about. And most importantly: Don't assume you are the first or the one and only. It's very seductive to believe you're the only black person who has ever noticed 'X.' If you dig deep enough, though, you know that there have always been those of us who were off-kilter, who loved Dvorak or understood the relationship between String Theory and Russian architecture or whatever thing that gets you going. Don't give into the seductive myth of being the one and only. Once you let that go, the work gets less lonely and the company you keep can expand, and when another black writer comes who wants to geek out over what you want to geek out about, you know you've found a friend and an ally. Not a rival, as the wider world would want you to believe."