Inkling Interview: B.B. Alston
Happy Friday Everyone!
To say I’m excited to learn more about this week’s author is an understatement. He made B I G waves in 2019 when he announced the sale of his middle grade fantasy series, with a long list of international rights to boot. Later, things got even sweeter when it was announced that Universal Pictures had picked up that same novel for film adaptation with Marsai Martin and Don-freaking-Cheadle!!
When I see things like this, I want to stand up and cheer because what it says to me is that this world wants stories told by and for people of all colors, creeds, and nationalities--so write them! In addition to writing a phenomenal book, what I love about this author is that they are always so genuine, gracious, and kind. I hope you all enjoy learning more about his journey — I’m really excited to! Please welcome, B.B. Alston!
Hello, B.B.! Thanks for your time! Let’s start with what I hope is an easier question: where are you at in your writing journey, and how did you get there?
I’m so very fortunate to have a book deal with Balzer & Bray (HarperCollins), and right now I’m in the process of knocking out my final rounds of edits with my wonderful editor Kristin Rens and well as my UK editor Lindsey Heaven for a January 2021 release.
How I got here is two answers:
I’ve been writing stories since middle school, which is like twenty-something years ago now (gosh i’m old!). Back in seventh grade, I’d write these horror stories on the class computer using my classmates as characters. They’d all come over and read to see who made it till the end. It’s the first time I was able to entertain someone else with something I wrote, and the first time thought of myself as a writer. This is the coolest writer origin story ...ever.
A tweet! So after years and years of form rejections on literally every query (like 70+), I kinda made my peace with never being published. I had just gotten accepted to a biomedical science program that allows graduates into the medical program. In the meantime, I decided to take a temp job. Well there was a hold up with my paperwork so I ended up waiting in the office scrolling through Twitter and saw something called #DVPit. I went back and forth over whether I should make a pitch, my confidence wasn’t very high at all, but I did and everything else is history!
[*For those who are unfamiliar, DVPit is a bi-annual pitching contest on Twitter for traditionally marginalized creators, people who have been historically excluded from the publishing industry based on things including but not limited to race, disability, sexual orientation, religion, etc. For more information about it, click the link above or visit dvpit.com.]
Back to you, B.B., I’m familiar with your debut novel, but for those that aren’t, can you pitch it?
I’m borrowing my agent’s submission pitch:
Quinton Peters was the golden boy of the Rosewood low-income housing projects, receiving full scholarship offers to two different Ivy League schools. When he mysteriously goes missing, his little sister, 13-year-old Amari Peters, can’t understand why it’s not a bigger deal. Why isn’t his story all over the news? And why do the police automatically assume he was into something illegal?
Then Amari discovers a ticking briefcase in her brother’s old closet. A briefcase meant for her eyes only. There was far more to Quinton, it seems, than she ever knew. He’s left her a nomination for a summer tryout at the secretive Bureau of Supernatural Affairs. Amari is certain the answer to finding out what happened to him lies somewhere inside, if only she can get her head around the idea of mermaids, dwarves, yetis and magicians all being real things, something she has to instantly confront when she is given a weredragon as a roommate.
Amari must compete against some of the nation’s wealthiest kids—who’ve known about the supernatural world their whole lives and are able to easily answer questions like which two Great Beasts reside in the Atlantic Ocean and how old is Merlin? Just getting around the Bureau is a lesson alone for Amari with signs like ‘Department of Hidden Places this way, or is it?’ If that all wasn’t enough, every Bureau trainee has a talent enhanced to supernatural levels to help them do their jobs – but Amari is given an illegal ability. As if she needed something else to make her stand out.
With an evil magician threatening the whole supernatural world, and her own campmates thinking she is an enemy, Amari has never felt more alone. But if she doesn’t pass the three tryouts, she may never find out what happened to Quinton.
Wow. Just wow. Even reading that just now made me want to applaud. What a pitch! This sounds absolutely epic, and of course now I'm dying to know all about your process. How, in a word or two, would you describe your writing style?
So I generally start with a main character, the problem the character is trying to overcome, and a list of things I think are cool. With that, I create the barest possible draft (zero draft) with just the major story beats. Then, with every subsequent draft, I keep adding until it becomes a coherent story. Then the come the dreaded revisions!
Ah, the zero draft. This is something I definitely wish I'd known about earlier in my own process but think is absolutely essential too. You've kind of just touched on it, but what is your favorite/least favorite part of the writing process?
My favorite part of the writing process is creating the world. Because I write fantasy, that’s where I get to use my imagination the most. My least favorite part is cutting stuff. I always feel like I’m losing something when I do.
As a fellow fantasy writer, I agree 100% with the worldbuilding piece. It's so much fun. That makes me wonder about where you find inspiration for your stories?
They mostly come from really random “You know what would be cool?” thoughts.
I love it! Now, so far B.B, earlier you mentioned you were enrolled in a biomedical science program, and of course we all have lives outside of writing. How do you manage life and other responsibilities alongside your writing?
Literally wouldn’t be possible without my wonderful wife! At least one person in the relationship has to be a competent adult, and she definitely keeps the train on the tracks.
Aw! Shout out to B.B.'s wife--and to all supportive spouses and partners, really! In that same vein of thought, can you tell us how you combat writer’s block and/or tough critiques of your writing?
With writer’s block, I find it’s good to allow yourself to take breaks from writing and let your brain recharge. There’s this myth that you have to write every day, but you really don’t. Take some time to enjoy life, your computer will still be there when you get back.
As far as tough critiques, the good thing about being rejected a million times is that you kinda build up a tough skin. So it honestly doesn’t bother me anymore. You have to accept that not everyone will like what you write.
I think that's a very valuable lesson, and the sooner you learn it as a writer, the better. Now, I have a fun question for you, B.B. If you could borrow a power from any book or movie, what would you want, and why?
I would love it if I had the ability to teleport. Imagine how much smaller the world would feel if you could have breakfast in the in New York, then teleport to London for an afternoon show, then teleport to, say, Tokyo for a night of dancing. A truly borderless world.
I would certainly love to see that much of the world without having to deal with airport and jetlag! To go back to writing a moment: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds?
Don’t give up! Especially considering that I was about to do just that. I know that it can seem like it will never happen, but it will if you just keep at it. Yours is a story meant to be read, underrepresented writers especially, so keep trying and make sure it gets into the hands of readers.
Absolutely! Another off the wall question: if your life was an album, what would it be called, and who would be featured?
Oh man, it would be called Don’t Give Up, and would feature a wide variety of artists from Maroon 5, to Rapsody, Drake, and even BTS.
Ooh, what a playlist, and I love that title! Now, a bonus question! You have an all-expenses paid trip with one of your characters--where do you go, who do you bring, and why?
Man, the super smart sidekick in my story, Elsie, and I would go to one of those international conventions where only geniuses are allowed. Maybe I could pose as her assistant! I’m so curious to know what kinds of things they talk about in there! It’s got to be really fascinating stuff.
Ah, that's an answer I've never gotten before. (My theory is that, in the safety of a private conferences, geniuses actually just talk about donuts, but that's pending confirmation.)
Thanks so, so much B.B., I'm cheering big for you and Amari, and can't wait to read her story!