When we last spoke to Nic Stone, her poignant and timely debut novel Dear Martin was newly launched. Mentored by Jodi Picoult, Stone crafted what reviewers called a “gripping” story of a young man who, after he is racially profiled, begins a journal of letters to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Since that conversation, Dear Martin has gone on to become an award-nominated, New York Times Best-Selling novel. Here, Stone offers advice for new authors and talks about how her life has changed since Dear Martin’s publication.
Do you have any advice for new authors on creating a satisfying ending or thrilling beginning?
I read a book a few years ago, called The First Five Pages, about starting in medias res, as things are happening. When I was starting out, I wanted to layer in a bunch of backstory in the beginning as a means of situating the reader. You don’t need to do that. You have to trust your reader, and starting with action is really the best way to do that. So, in Dear Martin, we open with Justyce showing up to rescue this ex-girlfriend of his and things pop off by page five. My second book opens with a character showing up at his best friend’s bedroom door after getting dumped. You don’t have all the information, but, as the story progresses and the pages progress, you get more.
Endings are hard. The ending of Dear Martin changed a bunch of times. I also think it depends on the genre. With YA, I think every ending should be a new beginning. You’re not completely concluding that character’s story; you’re stopping at the point where they reach a turning point and they are about to enter the next stage of life or development.
Any advice for avoiding a saggy middle?
Only put in what is essential. A lot of the time, what we think is essential has more to do with liking the sound of our own writing than what is essential for the story. As long as there are enough pitch points in the story, [the middle works better]… There’s a beginning, stuff happens, there’s an effect, more stuff happens, and it ends.
What elements are essential to creating realistic and compelling characters?
I typically have multiple people walking around and talking inside of my head at any given moment on any day. I think what is necessary is a willingness to take people as they are. People who judge [others] quickly are likely to create characters that aren’t realistic, because they will be based on their ideals and not based on actual humanity. It’s the combination of being willing to have voices talking in your head all the time, taking people as they are, and getting in touch with your own flaws so you understand how humanity functions. From that place, I have an extensive character profile that I fill out, so I know who a character is and what makes them tick. There are questions on there like what drives them, what is their biggest fear—things like that. Once I know the character, I can drop them in a situation and make them fit.
Tell us about what you’re currently writing.
Each of my books takes something about society that bothers me, and I pick it apart in narrative form. Right now, I am working on a book about relative poverty—what poverty looks like in America versus in the rest of the world. It’s about a young lady who is the poor kid in the rich area. That was my life in fifth through 12th grade. My high school was the most socioeconomically diverse high school in the state, so you had everything from kids who pulled up in their BMW 5 Series to kids who only ate at school because they had no food at home. I was always in these upper-level classes with white kids who came from the upper-end of the socioeconomic scale. You end up with a warped view of yourself and how the world works, all based on being surrounded by people who have more than you. The main character in this works at a gas station in her neighborhood. She sells a winning lottery ticket worth $106 million. The only other person in the store when she sells this ticket is the richest kid in the school. She enlists his assistance to help her find the woman who she believes she sold the ticket to. As they go on this journey, you see how wealth and poverty in America clash even when you have two people who are compatible in every other way.
How has your life changed since Dear Martin was published?
I’m never home. In February, I was gone most of the month. I was in two cities a week. This week, I’m home, but I have three school visits. The most intense and drastic change has been the amount of people I get to have an impact on. This past weekend, I was in Baltimore. I think I interacted with 200 kids over the course of three events. I had a middle school visit, a high school visit, and a program through the Pratt Library. It’s a lot of responsibility, and I don’t take it lightly.
How is the reality of being a published author different than the fantasy you had of being an author?
It’s work, man. It’s one thing to go out there and achieve your dream, but you can’t hold on to it if you don’t work. Every day, I am working on books. My first book just came out five months ago, and my third book is due. While I was waiting for notes on Dear Martin, I drafted a second book. Then, after my agent had the second book, I decided to do NaNoWriMo, so I wrote the third book. I am doing a book a year, now.
Now that you have had more time in the business, have your thoughts on the publishing industry changed at all?
I’ve gotten more evidence that what I believed was true. Edith Campbell—her twitter handle is@crazyquilts—did this blog post about black girl economics in young adult fiction. She does this very rich, intense research. She was talking about YA books written by African American women with black girls as a lead character. In 2017, there were only 11. We have almost 4,000 books published and only 11 about black girls. That is evidence that there is obviously still a problem. What has been the most interesting for me is finding out about books by black authors about black characters that are getting no marketing. Of all the times to put money behind books by people of color about people of color, this seems like it would be the one.
Tamika Newhouse and the AAMBC awards have a campaign called “They say we don’t read,” addressing a stereotype against African Americans. What would you say in support of that campaign?
Since my book came out five months ago, I have met close to ten thousand black kids who have read my book, books similar to mine, or books different from mine. So, somebody’s lying. It’s not that we don’t read. These kids want to read things that they can relate to. As long as we get it into their hands, they will read it.
The AAMBC awards were started to highlight black writers and creatives. Why do you think platforms like this are essential?
There are structures in place that sometimes prevent our work from even catching an eye, especially when it comes to awards and recognition. It’s easy to drown just because of the sheer discrepancy in numbers. There are a lot of people who are not of color creating a lot of material, and sometimes the material created by people of color can get a little lost.
I am thankful that [the AAMBC Awards] exist, and I hope they continue to exist even if we do start getting recognized in other areas. There is something really important and vital to me about having my work about a certain people group that I belong to recognized by that people group. What we say is excellent and what other people say is excellent don’t always align, but they are equally vital.
You've been nominated for the AAMBC awards for Breakout Author of the Year and Children’s/YA Author of the Year. What does that nomination mean to you?
I can’t even tell you. I will be completely honest, and I hope I don’t burn some bridges: These nominations have meant more to me than any others. There is something very powerful about receiving support and recognition from people you are not only writing about but writing for. Having recognition from within my own community… I can’t tell you how much that means to me. The beauty of blackness is the way we come together. It means so much that people came together to nominate me for something where I am trying to represent them. It means the world.
What’s up next for you?
I have a book coming out October 9th called Odd One Out. It’s a book about sexual questioning and teenage sexuality. It’s three kids of color. I don’t see enough kids of color represented in books that go beyond being a person of color. It’s about intersectionality, between race, sexuality, and sexual orientation. It’s about being young and trying to figure yourself out. When I was questioning, it wasn’t an okay thing to do. When I go to schools and tell the kids what I am working on, they are like “I need this book.” I am bisexual…a lot of this book is my own kind of journey. I’m as excited to talk to kids about this as I was to go to schools and talk to kids about racism.
How can people connect with you?
Thanks, Nic, for sharing your perspectives on your growth and success and on recognition for black writers. We look forward to seeing more of your journey.