On July 31, 2017, I officially signed my first book deal. It was almost two years to the date from my first author photo shoot. I remember smiling with such joy in my pictures – The Truth About Awiti was soaring as an indie novel, I had acquired agent representation, and a well-respected Senior Editor at one of the Big Five couldn’t wait to work with me on my next novel. I was WINNING! Alas, so much has happened since then – the book deal fell through which caused months of doubt about my writing and storytelling abilities. I am still working on the novel that was supposed to be my ticket to the big show. It’s nothing short of ironic that my first agented deal is a four-book children’s series – about as far removed from African American Historical Fiction as one can image. The bottom line is – you cannot predict your literary journey and you never know when or how your first deal will appear. If you’ve chosen to be a writer, get ready for the emotional ride of your life. (But it’s worth it!)
Like many authors before me, my Google searches once consisted on the terms “how to get an agent” and “first-time author book deals.” I, of course, was doing this before my novel was even finished. (See? You’re not alone! lol) I wanted to know when and how everything was going to happen when I finished writing The Truth About Awiti. But when I completed the novel and realized that the process from acquiring an agent to traditional publication could take a year or more, I decided to form my own independent press, Field Order Press, and publish it myself. I sent a copy to a lovely Senior Editor at one of the Big Five who I had met at a writer’s conference a year before. “Thanks for your encouragement and believing in my voice,” I wrote. “I just wanted you to know that I decided to independently publish my first novel. I hope you enjoy it and hopefully, we can work together in the future!” She contacted me a few days later. And thus, my traditional literary journey began.
I am currently represented by Emily Sylvan Kim at Prospect Agency. And I didn’t go through the query writing process to acquire representation. When the Senior Editor heard about the idea for my next novel – a historical romance between a French African soldier and a German woman, and the fate of their biracial children under Hitler’s reign of terror – she made a few agent recommendations. (Again, you never know how you are going to acquire your agent). Prospect Agency’s clientele includes adult fiction and young readers. Of course, I never imagined my first deal would be for the latter.
The Novel (That I Am Still Writing)
Whereas writing The Truth About Awiti was fun and at my leisure, the new novel which was tentatively titled Remember Me In Rheinland, was work. And I felt pressure to make the novel more “commercial.” And when one writes Black literature let’s just call it was it is – whitewashing. I wrote the first draft of Remember Me In Rheinland in four months. The novel was written from the perspective of the German woman and I didn’t really feel a connection with the characters nor storytelling. Still, it was a beautifully written narrative (agent’s and editor’s words, not mine!) and we moved forward with pursuing a deal.
The First Deal (That Wasn’t)
I was so anxious waiting to hear what the one of Big Five thought of my novel. When I saw the Senior Editor’s contact info show up on my phone, I had that excited-sick feeling in my stomach. “It has to be great news,” I said. “She’s calling me directly!” Wrong. She was crushed – her team didn’t feel a connection with the characters. We were all devastated, but perhaps, no one more than me. What a lesson. I hadn’t been true to myself nor the significance of a little known moment in African history. I cried and cried. And cried. Then, doubt set in.
Rejection, Rejection, Rejection
My agent decided that we should still try to pursue deals at other houses. I was emotionally drained, and with each rejection that I received, there was more doubt. There were rounds of edits based on comments from different houses. And soon, I didn’t even recognize the narrative. I was lost. And I didn’t write for months. In early 2016, I received another rejection and I didn’t even care (yeah, at some point you can become a bit desensitized to the whole process). But I had finally had enough. I told my agent, “I have to start from scratch. I have to write the novel as if I never met you or the Senior Editor. You just have to trust me.” She told me to go for it.
The Novel (That I Should Have Written The First Time)
The first thing I did was change the title. A large part of the novel was focused on Germany’s Black Shame campaign against the French African Army and so I wanted that “shame” reflected in the title. After many renditions, I finally settled on Memoir of Shame. The novel is told entirely from the perspective of the French African soldier – as it should have been all along. It’s beautiful, heart-wrenching, and I love it. I cannot stress that YOU have to love your story. You cannot trick anyone – not even yourself. I plan to finish the novel by the end of the summer so stay tuned!
The First Deal (That Was)
Agents understand the struggle. They have seen it time and time again with their authors. My agent would check in from time to time, which I really appreciated. In March of 2017, she sent me an email about a possible diverse children’s book opportunity. “It might be fun,” she suggested. I welcomed the distraction because writing about the Holocaust is not fun. We pitched my chapter book ideas to the publisher, ABDO Publishing, and I went back to the struggle of working on Memoir of Shame. A few months later, I received the call. The publisher loved my idea for the series! When I received the great news, I was at my first writing residency at The Lemon Tree House and we popped champagne and celebrated. It was pretty magical. I wrote the first chapter book over the course of few days and soon, I had a book contract in my hands. It’s still a bit surreal that my first deal is for a project that collectively I worked on for less than a week and not the novel that I thought would change my life.
I wanted to share my experience to encourage writers and to show just how unpredictable one’s writing journey can be. In the past two years, I have experienced unbelievable highs and the lowest of lows. There were days I couldn’t write a single word, and other days where I worked on Memoir of Shame for 10+ hours. I have no idea what the future holds for the novel but I have learned not to worry about it. I am focused on finishing the story – everything else is providence.