My second debut

Second time around

IMG_8767In some ways, I’m a second round debutante. In 2004, I did a solo show. It was my first full-length work that had been publicly produced. Of course, the producer was me. The writer, the actor, the dancer, the prop master, the production assistant, the graphic designer, and the makeup artist? Also me. Designing and printing the programs? Me again. I had a fabulous director, who also was a lighting designer and an assistant director who also choreographed. I had a costume designer, a videographer, and a publicist. I had a woman who braided my hair. Any other miscellaneous jobs fell to me.

Having a professional team

When I was having a hard time getting an agent, people would ask if I had considered self-publishing. Having self-produced my own show and self-published short chapbooks of poetry, I knew how hard it was. I didn’t consider self-publishign my novel for a single second. Although I knew I needed the help, it’s still sort of a surprise when it happens. One of the things that’s most unfamiliar to me about the debut novel experience is how many other people are handling things for me. Someone else designed my book cover, proofread the book, had it printed, and is shipping it to bookstores. Someone else wrote jacket copy, did memes of my book, and uploaded it to various online outlets. Someone else will be keeping track of sales, royalties, and simply cutting me a check when I’m due to be paid. This seems like a miracle.

Same old same old

While some parts of the experience are strange and new, there are other parts that seem very familiar. I recall very well the co-hustle with the publicist to get press coverage. I remember the careful sorting of the lists to determine which ones I contact directly, and which ones they pitch on my behalf. These surprise emails that publication X will be reviewing or reporty Y wants an interview feel like déjà vu. But it’s different this time because of the development of social media.

In 2004 I had only been using email for a few years, and had an email list on yahoogroups. So the format was different, but the nerves were the same. The oh-please-pay-attention-to-this-thing-I-made part feels identical. Back then, I was driving around town dropping flyers at performance venues, coffee shops, libraries, and community organizations. Now, I’m on facebook, twitter and pitching via email.

Don’t go it alone

One of the biggest differences is The Debutante Ball. When I was doing solo performance, I didn’t have a crew of people who were putting on their very first show. I felt deeply alone, even as I rarely had a quiet moment to myself. It seemed that nobody was in the same spot as me. They were either further along in their careers, or hadn’t yet had their first shows. That’s exactly how it was before I was accepted onto the Ball. I had a couple of friends who were published novelists, and I had many friends who had rough drafts in progress. I had a few acquaintances who were querying agents. One of the biggest blessings of this year has been to have a crew of female peers to share all of this with.

A couple of years back, I sought out Toni Ann Johnson as a check in buddy, because she and I were both attempting to get published. Her debut came out in 2014, and she was one of my first guest authors on the blog this year. She continues to be a great friend and important source of support. So I would say that it’s critical or at least optimal to organize a supportive crew of peers for your debut experience. If you can’t find a group that meets your needs, then organize one. Be bold! Most folks are just as hungry for a crew as you are.

Be shameless

Finally, I think the biggest lesson of being a debutante has been shamelessness. I have wrung my hands repeatedly as I’ve contemplated asking other authors for a blurb, asking journalists for a review, or asking a bookstore to carry my novel. I’m afraid of offending someone, being presumptuous, or pissing them off. I’m afraid of getting onto someone’s bad side. But I’ve started asking myself this question: what am I waiting for? What could be more worth annoying someone for than my debut novel?

This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. I’ve learned to pull up my big girl pants and ask shamelessly for what I want (and to binge watch mindless TV while I send out the emails, if it’s too angst-filled). So I’ve sent out maybe 200 pitches to journalists and bloggers I know via Twitter and other networks. While I was sendign stuff out, it felt a bit excruciating. But now that it’s done, I feel great. At this point, it’s up to the world to get excited about the book. Or not. But I can relax, knowing that I’ve done my part.

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Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, My Brown Baby, KQED Pop, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, and she has been a guest on HuffPostLive. She is the author of the children's picture book PUFFY: PEOPLE WHOSE HAIR DEFIES GRAVITY. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, UPTOWN THIEF, in 2016. For more info, go to ayadeleon.wordpress.com.