Author Belinda N. Mays is talking about her seven-year-old daughter, Adrielle. “She loves to tell stories, sometimes too much so. Because when I ask her about her day and she starts telling me, I have to ask, ‘Is this fiction or is this non-fiction?’ The lines are very blurry with her!” Mays laughs joyfully.
Storytelling runs in Mays’ family. Mays credits her mother’s love of creating stories with her own interest in writing. Over the past two years, Mays, 36, has written and published two children’s books, My Amazing Dad and 7 Days with Daddy.
A contest through her local Toastmasters Club in 2012 unlocked a new passion for this Systems Integrations Business Analyst at Lockheed Aeronautics in Fort Worth. Her creation and performance of a tall tale won the contest at chapter level and led to competition at district level.
“I came up with a tall tale called ‘My Amazing Dad’ about my dad who was known as Mr. Fix-It when I was growing up. He could fix anything. I noticed my daughter enjoyed hearing it. She knew every word!” Mays says. “Then, my dad passed away in 2013.”
A patron of The Dock Bookshop in Fort Worth, Mays had been enjoying its Pens and Pancakes workshops when a seminar on self-publishing came up. “After my dad died, I was motivated. [My Amazing Dad] is a great story, and I wanted to share it. This is something that honors my father, and I wanted to have it published. So I stepped out on faith and did it!”
Like the Toastmasters Club, promoting the book through readings at local libraries allowed Mays to indulge her inner performer. She found she loved telling stories and watching people’s reactions. The urge to create a second book took hold, culminating a year-and-a-half later in Mays’ second children’s book, 7 Days with Daddy.
“I wanted to capture some of the shenanigans that [Adrielle] and my husband would do when I was out of town,” Mays explains. “They’d go out on a date. They’d go out to dinner.”
Mays also realized she had an opportunity to turn the tables on a conventional theme; in her life, mom went on business trips and dad stayed home.
At the same time, Mays noticed her daughter having difficulty understanding the time concepts of before and after, first and next. Contextually, these concepts — and the days of the week — fit easily into the book’s theme. Five months later, 7 Days with Daddy was published.
Finding inspiration in her own life experiences, Mays’ third book is already on her mind: a story about her mother, who has superpowers bestowed on her by an abundant head of hair.
It’s important to Mays to write about her reality. In college, a poem Mays wrote and performed entitled “I’s Tired” won third place in a Poetry Slam featuring the poet Nikki Giovanni. Mays’ poem chronicled the journey of African-Americans from slavery to recognition but lamented the lack of true acceptance.
Today, she’s on a mission to advocate the art of storytelling, explore nontraditional roles, and introduce African-American characters. Mays cites a statistic that reveals only 3-5 percent of books have African-American characters.
As the mother of two girls — and soon, a boy — Mays wants to give back to her community, to provide literature that her children can see themselves in, and to teach and entertain through humor and tribute.
Advice for future writers
Like Mays, many of us harbor the desire to express ourselves via written word and toy with dreams of publishing. Publishing is easier than ever today with the advent of self-publishing,
but traditional avenues of publication are viable, too. Local
published authors Clover Autrey and Michael Baldwin offer
suggestions for getting that dream down on paper and out into the world.
Autrey is president of the Keller Writers Association and a member of the North Texas chapter of Romance Writers of America. Writing groups like these — open to beginning and published authors of all ages — are an invaluable resource. Some groups, like KWA, are critique-oriented; writers present pieces they are working on for feedback from other writers. Other groups not only offer opportunities to hone one’s craft, but also present guest speakers to educate writers about the business side. Autrey advises a national writers group exists for every genre, and each offers conferences with editors, agents, and publishers in that field. Writing groups have been an integral part of Autrey’s writing process; she currently has 12 published novels.
Writing groups open to beginning and published authors of all ages are an invaluable resource.
Submitting one’s writing to contests is also a helpful source for feedback, as judges are often published writers themselves who take time to comment on each submission. “For that reason alone, do it,” advises Autrey.
Baldwin, a published poet, short story writer and novelist, lists the Poets and Writers Magazine database, Winning Writers Blog, and Duotrope as resources for finding contests. University presses and literary journals also offer poetry and fiction contests. “If you’ve won a contest, it gives you some additional credibility with traditional publishers,” he advises.
“Most first time authors, myself included, want to be traditionally published, and I think that they should be,” Autrey suggests, “because there’s something you need to learn about going through the editorial process.” An editor assigned to each author reviews the work’s content, structure, grammar, and syntax. “Your product needs to be professional or it’s not going to go anywhere, just like any other product,” Autrey says.
Traditional publishers take care of formatting and cover design and will market the finished product in bookstores. It can be a lengthy process, though, lasting six to 12 months.
Finding a traditional publisher involves writing query letters and synopses and networking with other writers who have literary agents. Autrey notes making sure an agent represents one’s genre before hiring him/her, or the end product may not be marketed ably.
Small publishing houses rather than behemoths like Simon & Schuster may be the best way to begin. “Unless you’re Stephen King or some well-known author,” Baldwin recommends, “you aren’t going to get [a great level] of service from a traditional publisher.”
In recent years, self-publishing has blossomed into a respectable alternative to traditional publishing. Several independent publishing platforms exist — Smashwords, BookBaby, CreateSpace — and Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Googleplay and iTunes all have a self-publishing arm. A self-publisher needs to be savvy, though, because all decisions are in the writer’s hands — designing a cover, formatting the piece for the finished product, editing, and promotion.
Self-publishing is a respectable alternative to traditional publishing.
Autrey learned about self-publishing from listening to other writers in her writers’ groups. Baldwin shares his experiences with self-publishing through seminars like the one he recently conducted at Keller Public Library in June. Online resources like Author Audience Academy offer instructional video lessons on getting started.
Some self-publishers charge an upfront fee for their services; others will recoup their expenses through a percentage of the sales. An author can rely on a self-publisher to complete production or oversee only pieces of it. Websites like Upwork provide editors, formatters, cover artists and illustrators with a platform to offer their services to writers.
The toughest aspect of self-publishing is marketing the finished product — that’s all on the writer’s shoulders, too. Autrey and Baldwin rely on social media like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, “but they won’t sell a million copies for you,” Baldwin warns.
He creates book trailers that he uploads to YouTube and holds readings to promote his work. Autrey collaborates with other authors to hold Facebook events and create box sets, both of which bring other writers’ readerships to her books. And websites like Bookbub and Promocave are helpful for promotion.
“Just like any craft, you have to learn,” Autrey concludes. “[Writing and publishing] is enjoyable, but it’s hard work.” —Hard work that pays off with the adrenaline rush and self-satisfaction of seeing one’s work in print, as an e-book, or an audio recording, just like Belinda Mays’.