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How I wrote my first book and how I've learned to never write that way again - Part 1

This is part one in what will probably end up being a three part series on my writing process. I'm certainly not the first to write about how I work and I’m sure I will not be the last. Nonetheless, I thought it would be good for me to share my approach in hopes that, in the same way I've learned from others, you'll pick something up from me. There’s a possibility that what you’ll learn is chaos, but that’s the price you pay for free advice on the interwebs.

I originally got the idea for Alora Factor around late 2018 or early 2019. I remember I was having a conversation with my friend, Jamal. We were talking about the cultural impact of Black Panther and the importance of representation. (We're both Black people). For years, Black people have been told that Hollywood doesn’t make movies centering us because people aren’t interested in our stories. In other words, Black stories don’t sell. Yet, you had people showing up to the theaters in costume, everybody and their mama was doing the Wakanda Salute and Chadwick Boseman was officially a national treasure - RIP you beautiful, Black man.

The thing is, it wasn’t just Black people excited for that movie - the whole world was saying Wakanda Forever. And then, not too long after that, Crazy Rich Asians made a big splash. So it's obvious that we do want stories about other cultures and those stories will sell. That’s because the culture of a people is always very real and very rich and very diverse and it doesn’t have to also be very Euro-centric for many of us to take interest. In fact, in my opinion, the more time we spend exposing ourselves to other cultures, the more we will appreciate and respect them.

Part of what I told my friend is that when I was a little girl my father used to make up these stories for me about a little girl named Princess Ebony. I know Princess Ebony was me (I'll fight you if you try to tell me otherwise) because all of her adventures resembled mine - she rode horses, rescued abandoned animals and longed for a little brother because she was an only child and she thought a brother would be more fun than a sister. Jamal and I also talked about the overall cultural influence of Black Panther and that conversation sparked the first seeds for Alora, her family and friends.

Thinking about the Princess Ebony stories also made me think about how stories about Black girls doing cool things and being the center wasn't a thing when I was little. And despite all of the recent talk about a desire for “own voices” and diversity in books, it's still not really happening. And more than once, when it does happen, the story published is written by a white person. (Which is a whole other story - that blog post is coming!)

What’s also interesting to me is that when it comes to “diverse” stories, it usually amounts to trauma porn or plays into the worst stereotypes, especially when it comes to Black girls. We have to come from poverty or broken homes or experience mental and physical abuse and sometimes all of those things. Many writers like to torture Black girls in their stories - forcing them to fight for everything - from basic human dignity to the roofs over their heads. These stories are exhausting to read and while I’m not blind to the fact that being impoverished or struggling to maintain sanity is a reality for many, the abject suffering of Black females should no longer be considered entertainment.

The idea for Alora Factor rolled around in my head for months. At times, I’d go months without thinking about her and then she’d pop into my mind and dominate my thoughts for hours. For example, I was doing research for a blog post I planned to publish alongside a episode of BackStory the American history podcast (my old job) when I came across the names Sukey, Mary and Plenty on a list of enslaved people claimed by a Seminole woman named Nelly Factor. I loved the names and thought to myself, “these are the names of Alora’s ancestors.” Whenever I had a good idea, I’d write it in a Google doc. That went on for about a year and then 2020 rolled around and we all know what happened next.

For me, it meant my job was ending. It wasn’t a big thing because I knew my job was ending at the end of 2019, but I didn’t know that the last few months I would spend on BackStory would be in the midst of me working remotely due to a pandemic. Like everyone else, I was thrown for a loop, but unlike everyone else, I had a lovely severance package coming to me and months of free time with zero pressure to return to work. I started thinking about Alora again and now I'm hearing her voice regularly and so I break out my notes.

Here’s the part where I now cringe: I sat down and just started writing. No outline, no real plan for point of view - the words just started pouring out of me and I ran with it. Halfway through chapter one, I changed the point of view, switching everything to first person. At the end of chapter three, I changed a character’s gender and then their name. Somewhere around chapter six, I realized I should have had an outline, so I stopped and made one, but then I disregarded it for the last half of the book. The list of the flat out stupid moves I made goes on and on.

Before the year was up, despite my blunders, I’d pretty much written the entire book. I thank my background in journalism and natural talent for giving me the ability to write, but being able to write a press release and being able to write a novel are two entirely different things. Which is how I ended up writing a sci-fi/fantasy without spending significant time constructing the world. In my defense, I had a pretty good idea of what Alora’s world looked like in my mind and in hindsight, I did a decent job at executing it, but I would have done a better job if I’d mapped out the world and the story arc first.

In part two, I’ll discuss my research process and editing. Be sure to share this blog post and let me know what you think in the comments.

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