Can death pull apart what music brings together? In The Beauty That Remains, Ashley Woodfolk delves into that question. Her compelling debut novel explores how three different characters find courage and comfort in the aftermath of a tragic loss. Here, we talk to Ashley about writing, publishing, and tips that she’d like to share with emerging authors. (Plus, meet Ashley at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in August!)
What was your life like, pre-book?
Pretty much the same. I work in children’s book publishing, and I work in marketing. I live in New York. I have a full-time job. I wrote on the weekends and in the mornings, and that is what I do now.
Is there a book that inspired you to be a writer or that has a particular influence on the characters you create today?
I wouldn’t say there is one book, in particular; I always knew I wanted to write a full-length book. I think Sarah Dessen’s works were sorta the first group of books that I read as an older teenager where I wished that there was a character who was black. I saw myself in her books and her characters, but they were always white girls. That is totally her experience, and it makes sense. Reading those books—that contemporary, heartfelt YA that dealt with real issues—and not being able to find one that starred a black character stirred something in me. It made me want to write something similar and put a kid of color at the center.
What authors do you currently find inspiring?
I’m obsessed with Nicola Yoon. I ended up at a writing retreat where she was running the workshop. I told her I worked at Random House when her book came out. I told her my husband is Chinese-American and how much her books meant to me. She is a lovely human. Whenever I see her now, we embrace. She is a big influence. I loved Dear Martin [by Nic Stone] and I am so excited for Odd One Out [Nic Stone’s upcoming novel]. It’s an exploration of sexuality and friendship and what it means to question that. I feel like if I had that book when I was younger, it would have made a big difference in my life.
Looking back, what do you think you did right that helped you become the novelist you are now?
I didn’t give up. This is not the first novel I’ve written. It’s not the first novel I’ve queried. I wrote three novels before this one, but I only thought one of them was good enough to query. [Also,] continuing to tell stories that I felt were important to me; being true to the stories I wanted to tell instead of writing what I thought would sell.
What do you think is selling now?
The sorta “ripped from the headlines” things are working well. Epic fantasy set in a world tied to a cultural group is big; there have been like four West African- or Indian-inspired fantasies, recently. In middle grade, I have seen a lot of ghost stories sell. Girls’ coming-of-age stories… where a girl is empowered and going against her parents or the status quo. There is a lot of pickup with that kind of stuff, probably because of our presidency. All female empowerment stories are big right now.
How did your current novel, The Beauty That Remains, come to be?
My boyfriend, who is now my husband, had moved to San Francisco. I was here in New York and I had this irrational fear that something would happen to him and I’d find out on social media. I was having panic attacks; I was in cognitive behavioral therapy, and one of the things they tell you is to figure out why you’re having this catastrophic thought. One of my friends had a couple of friends die in high school. So, I started thinking about what it would be like to go through something like that. It started as me trying to write my way through this fear. Music helped me with my anxiety issues and stress, so I put all of that together and thought about how characters in the situation might use music to heal.
Did you have any writers or mentors who helped you along the way?
Jennifer E. Smith—I worked with her at Random House. She answered a lot of my questions and took time out of her busy day when she was still an editor. Dhonielle Clayton [author and COO of the non-profit We Need Diverse Books] is a lovely human and so knowledgeable about all this stuff. I emailed her and texted her for a year with questions, and she was gracious and helpful and eventually became a friend. She blurbed my book. My agent is really great as well; she’s very editorial.
Did you get an editor before you queried?
I didn’t. I sent it to a lot of friends. I was also a part of a writing group. I had a friend who worked at an agency read my query letter, as well. By the time I started querying, I knew my query letter and my first five chapters were strong, so I felt like I was in a good position to attract an agent. I was a lot more targeted about [submissions this time]. I thought about what I wanted and what I would need when I got representation. One of the things I wanted was a woman of color. I didn’t rule anyone out, but the majority of the agents on my list were women of color and agents who said they were seeking diversity. I ultimately decided to go with Beth Phelan from Gallt & Zacker.
What resources helped you the most during the querying process?
There is a website called Literary Rambles that does these agent round-up things. I also had a Google alert on Writer’s Digest for new literary agents. I followed hashtags like #manuscriptwishlist on Twitter.
Do you have any tips on writing good query letters for aspiring authors?
Get a lot of people to read it and poke holes in it. Keep it short and sweet. You want it to be punchy, almost like an ad for your book. You want to say, This is the main character, this is what they want, and this is why they can’t have it. Leave the reader wanting to know how they get it.
How did you cope with rejection during the query process?
I tried to tell myself not to take it personally. For everyone who doesn’t like it, there would be someone who did. I tell myself all those stories, like J.K. Rowling getting rejected a hundred times or something. I soothe myself with those kinds of stories.
What would you say is important to creating believable characters?
Don’t just say a character is an artist and only give them artistic characteristics. People are never just one thing, and characters shouldn’t be either.
Do you have any tips for writing about grief?
Talk to people who have been through it, if they are willing to talk to you. Pull from your own experience. You can grieve for someone who hasn’t died. I’ve had a lot of dead relationships. I pulled a lot from those feelings… from having a person in your life and then suddenly not having that person in your life. Grief is losing someone, even if they still exist.
Do you have any advice for new authors on creating a thrilling beginning?
You want your first chapter to pack a punch. Introduce your characters in an interesting way. They can be doing something normal in an interesting way or they can be doing something unusual or having a weird reaction in a normal situation. Make the first moment interesting; make it count.
Any other advice for aspiring writers?
Think about what you love most about books and figure out how you can make that new and exciting. Read a lot, and not just in the genre that you are writing. Watch a lot of good TV and movies, as well, because they have good dialogue. They are really helpful when you’re learning to write realistic dialogue. If you keep doing that, you will find your own voice.
People constantly say that publishing lacks diversity and that we need more diverse books. What are your feelings on that?
I think we still have a long way to go. For a couple years now we have been saying we need diverse books. That is still true, but there is so much diversity in diversity. The conversation needs to be about more than just racial diversity, disability and mental illness. I think it should become commonplace for incidental diversity to exist. I don’t think marginalized characters’ diversity has to be the whole story.
What are you currently writing?
A friendship breakup story. Two girls who are not friends anymore. It’s done in a duo timeline, so you will see their versions of what happened and what actually happened in flashback. I want all of my books to tell what I needed to hear. The first book reflected how music can feel like a miracle, and this book reflects how painful it is to lose a friend or do horrible things that you regret. You can move on and become a functional human being and heal from it.
How can people connect with you?
On Twitter @ashwrites or on my website www.ashleywoodfolk.com