Ad Astra: Looking to the Stars with Jill Tew
We make plans and life laughs.
Like really laughs. Well, maybe more like cackles and howls.
Those times you set aside for a GOAT-level 5k writing sprint?
The baby is crying, kids are fighting, work has drained you, dinner's not ready
You close your eyes just for a little bit of sleep
And wake up to realize that you took a three-hour nap
Ahhhh! How can you fit in writing now?
The carpool line? The doctor's office? Lunch break?
Unfortunately, the answer is yes.
But that doesn't mean it's wrong. Never that.
Whether it's 20 words a day or only a chapter this month
What matters is that you did it.
And author Jill Tew did just that!
1. Welp, the first question is the one all in the writing community love to know! What’s the story of your writing journey--from your first stroke of the pen up until now?
I loved writing as a kid. But even when I started writing Broken Glimpse (the story that eventually got me my agent) I wasn’t planning to pursue writing as a career. I just had a story in my head that wouldn’t leave me alone, and I wanted to keep working on it until it was the kind of book that I love to read.
That was almost eight years and four rewrites ago. Some of those early drafts are the definition of cringe— there was so much I didn’t know! In those eight years, I went through two job changes, three moves, getting married, and two complicated pregnancies that (thank God) resulted in two beautiful kids… and all the work that those kids entail. I thought about quitting my book constantly, and actually did maybe four times. But I always kept coming back to it.
The last time I quit was December 2019, two months after my youngest was born. I was exhausted, feeling down about the progress of the manuscript, and didn’t want to keep wasting my time on something that I was never going to finish anyway. About two weeks later, the same temptation to come back to writing returned, but I was tired of playing that game. My choices were (1) to really, truly quit and stop thinking about the book, or (2) to pick it up and never quit again, to make all of the time I’d spent worth it. I chose (2) :). The first few months of newborn life are draining, to say the least. I finished the first “real” draft (rewrite #3) of Broken Glimpse writing 250 words a day, hiding my phone screen under my blanket next to my daughter’s crib. The end of that draft was nearly unintelligible… but I finished!
Shortly after that, I discovered Book Twitter and found some wonderful CPs. It was such a welcome relief to learn that writing didn’t have to be the solitary, banging-head-against-desk experience I’d come to know. I revised based on CP feedback over the summer of 2020 and started querying in August. The initial response was really positive. But time after time, those full requests didn’t result in an offer. Something in my story wasn’t delivering on the promise of the premise, and I wasn’t sure what it was. In the meantime, I had a completed manuscript for the first time EVER, so you better believe I was slinging that puppy into every contest I could find.
In October 2020 I found out that I was the First Place winner of Hugo-nominated editor Diana M. Pho’s #Edits4BlackSFF contest! Diana read my entire manuscript and provided an edit letter and in-line notes that completely transformed my book. I did a massive revision for the next several months. In August of 2021 (a whole year later!!), I was ready to query again, and so proud of what my story had become. This time, things moved quickly. I had an offer from an agent 10 days after sending out my query, and a competing offer two weeks after that. In the end, I signed with Jen Azantian of Azantian Literary Agency, and I couldn’t be happier. I’m in the final stages of revision now, with a plan to go on sub in January(!!).
2. Congrats on finding an agent! Much advice is offered regarding this, but sometimes it’s hard to discern what is valid, what to apply to your situation, and unfortunately, what BIPOC or other marginalized authors must consider that others do not. As a Black author, what’s the biggest querying advice you’d give? As an author writing in a genre that requires an advocate who is knowledgeable and well-versed in it, what advice would you give?
I’ll add my voice to the chorus of people saying “do your research”! It’s worth it to pay for a month or two of Publishers Marketplace— split it with a few friends if you need to. Alexa Donne has a great YouTube video about how she uses PM to build her query lists: finding agencies and agents who actually walk the walk when it comes to sales in the genre that you write in. Beyond that, check an agent’s list to see if they have a history of representing marginalized voices, and representing them well, not just as window dressing.
Learning from the experiences of others is really helpful, too. A few writers on Twitter have been vocal about switching agents for various reasons. If you do some Twitter sleuthing, sometimes you can piece together the story and draw your own conclusions from there.
And this last one is easier said than done, but remember that an agent is a long-term decision, not a short-term move for Twitter clout or the relief of finally being out of the querying trenches. Your goal is not to get an agent. Your goal is to find someone who will help launch your career, to sell your first book (at the very least). In my earlier round of querying, I actually did get an offer, from a very new agent at an established agency. When we had “The Call”, that agent told me that they loved my book and had essentially no notes, and I knew that wasn’t the vision I had for my book. I knew it needed work, and I wanted a partner that would help me beat it into the best shape so that it had a shot in submission. I wanted so badly to move on to the next phase with this book I’d been working on for seven years at that point, and I almost talked myself into saying yes just to be done with querying. But in the end, I declined. It took a full YEAR after that for me to sign with an agent, but the wait and the work were so, so worth it. Don’t sell your story short. Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast.
3. Many SFF lists are often dominated by fantasy titles. What do you consider traits that separate sci-fi from fantasy? Does sci-fi ask certain questions more focused on philosophy, politics, and human innovation than fantasy? How do the readers of each genre differ?
I don’t read a ton of fantasy, but what I have read definitely asks big questions about society and the human condition, so it’s similar to sci-fi in that sense. I’d say sci-fi’s distinction lies in its forward-facing nature. Asimov had three categories for what he considered “sociology dominant” science fiction:
(1) what if…
(2) if only…
(3) if this goes on...
That third category, the one that plays out aspects of society today to their natural conclusion, is something that only sci-fi can do. The sci-fi that sticks with me, personally, are the stories that call attention to an element of life today that we may not even notice—choices we don’t even realize we are making— and alert us to its potential dangers.
As for differences in readership, I think there’s more and more crossover every day, and I’m here for it!
4. You entered #Edits4BlackSFF and worked with Diana Pho on revisions for your manuscript. Can you share what that process was like? What are the biggest takeaways about revision that you learned from that process?
Diana’s notes changed my life! She gave me an edit letter several pages long, and also an annotated copy of my manuscript with some in-line feedback. The biggest thing her notes did is give me permission to lean into some of the aspects of the book I had been skirting around. She encouraged me to make the allegories more explicit, put some of the darker insights more directly on the page. I had been debating whether the story made more sense in YA vs Adult. Once she helped me see that it was firmly in Adult territory, so many choices became clear.
Revision is my favorite part of writing, so I was all in on the process. It helped that I had heard a bit about other authors’ revision experiences, so I knew the initial “umm does this person know that I’m not a good enough writer to pull off what they’re asking for?” freak-out is totally normal and to be expected!
5. Who are your biggest sci-fi author inspirations? What about in the movie and tv world? Are you a Trekkie? Star Wars fan? Dune fanatic? Jemisin devotee?
Honestly, I love it all, and I have learned something from almost everything I’ve read or watched (even the stuff that gets panned). Right now I’d say I’m most ride or die for The Expanse series— the way it realistically portrays society and politics in a near-ish future solar system. I can’t wait to do a full rewatch after this final season is over, and dive into the books.
6. Sci-fi and spec fic often cover the human condition or how people interact and adapt to their environment or society. Does your WIP echo these themes? If so, what real-world inspirations do you draw from? What makes you want to explore certain thematic elements in your work?
It definitely does draw from real-world issues. I wrote/revised so much of the heart of the story in the summer of 2020, and I feel like the metaphors are evident. Broken Glimpse is a parallel universe story, about a dimension that’s being oppressed, simply because it can be exploited. It is more profitable to deny those people rights than it is to embrace them as equals, even though they are literally the same people as those who are doing the oppressing.
My heroine, Zoe, is from the privileged dimension. She has to grapple with the fact that she has reaped the benefits of this oppression without her knowledge, and ask herself how far she’s willing to go to right those wrongs. With Zoe, I think I’m playing out a lot of my own thoughts as a very privileged Black woman— wrestling with my own complicitness, and straddling two very different worlds based on various identities… phew! Didn’t know we were having a therapy session today!
7. You’re a proud member of the 5 AM Writer’s Club (hats off because my brain is so not churning out anything at that time, lol). For someone trying to manage writing alongside life, a day job, and other things, what are the pros of the 5 AM Writer’s Club? How can writers “find” the time of day in which they’re most productive?
I used to be a nighttime writer, but so often my brain was too fried to really get much out. Writing in the morning is kind of like working out for me; whatever chaos the rest of the day has in store, I know that I at least did that one productive thing, so I can take whatever comes in stride. As for mid-day writing, it’s a no go for me. Once my kids are up, all bets are off!
But I’d encourage writers not to feel like they have to stay up late or get up early to get the words in; it’s just what works for me. If you wait for that perfect chunk of time to get 1,000 words down, it may never come. So much of my first manuscript was written 30 words at a time, in line at Chipotle or in the waiting room at the dentist. Get the words in where you can, do whatever you can to get the story down. Once you’ve got a finished manuscript, no matter how rough, the game changes. You can revise, submit to contests, apply for mentorships— things that will level you up even further. You just have to finish. And that happens one word at a time.
Also: Take days off! I try to sleep in at least twice a week. The days when I should sleep in and convince myself to push through, I almost always regret. My writing’s not as strong and I’m just grumpy the rest of the day. Nobody wins.
8. What is your writerly form of self-care?
I’m intentional about my breaks, and I stick to them faithfully. I try not to go more than 3 days in a row with early morning writing sessions before sleeping in. I’m also always writing toward a longer break of some kind; I set a goal and once I hit it, I take at least two weeks off to read and watch all of the things I put aside while I was writing. That’s fun because that whole time I’m amassing a big list of to-read and to-watch things, and I know that even my downtime is going to be filled with stuff that I’m excited for, instead of whatever just happens to be on.
Ok, now it’s time for the ‘fun’ questions!
9. Your work is being adapted for HBO Max and an Imax release. Your dream director is:
Oh wow! The Nolan brand is synonymous with mind-bend-y near-future sci-fi for me, the kind that introduces new technology and plays out the natural human consequences—aka my jam. So I’ll go with Christopher, but also Jonathan. And also Lisa Joy. It’s a family affair.
10. Unpopular book or writing opinion?
Non-fiction reading fills the well as much as fiction does. Sometimes more.
11. Your must-have songs on a writing playlist are….
Anything by Nicholas Britell. My Spotify Unwrapped tells me my writing music is “intense” and “yearning”, so there you go.
From a young age, Jill Tew was destined for speculative fiction nerddom. She grew up watching Farscape, Hercules, and Xena with her dad every week, and always had the latest copy of Animorphs tucked in her backpack. Now she writes the stories she loved as a kid, with characters she wanted to see more of— Black heroines asking big questions, saving the world, and occasionally falling in love along the way.
A recovering business school graduate, Jill enjoys belting show tunes on the way to Target and baking in her spare time. She is also a co-host of Afronauts Podcast, which provides writing tips and community for Black aspiring speculative fiction writers. Jill lives in Atlanta with her husband, two young girls, and a needy Dalmatian named Gus. She is represented by Jen Azantian of Azantian Literary Agency.
Although the program is currently on hiatus, be sure to check out past episodes of the Afronauts podcast (Jill is a co-host). Available on Spotify and other auditory streaming services: https://anchor.fm/afronauts-podcast