Believing in Timing and Yourself: Author Terry Benton-Walker
Updated: Feb 23, 2021
Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler! Let the good times roll! And trust me on this, you will have a SPLENDID time reading this week's blog post. Author Terry Benton-Walker has graced us this week with a wealth of wisdom, discussing everything from almost shelving a manuscript (that later landed him his debut book deal), waiting for the right agent, self-care, and the importance of creating queer characters who aren't the comic relief or the random love interest.
Hello, Terry! Thank you for being part of my publishing interview blog series. I’m so glad you agreed. I remember seeing your deal announcement and being sooooo mad that I have to wait until 2023! But alas, good things come to those who wait and I’m sure your trilogy is going to be hit :)
Thank you for having me! I’m also not looking forward to waiting... buuut I think by Winter 2023, we’ll (hopefully) be out of this pancake, which means I’ll get to do fun stuff like launch tours, conferences, signings, etc. which are going to be lit after we’ve all been trapped inside for two years. So this very, very dark cloud might have a silver lining, or maybe just a glint, but something’s there!
This has probably asked no less than a hundred times but never loses its novelty. Tell us, how did you get your agent?
I’d queried 7 manuscripts over a period of 8 looong years before I signed with Patrice Caldwell in November 2019. Back then, my debut young adult contemporary fantasy, BLOOD DEBTS, was titled Queen, and Patrice wasn’t yet an agent when I first queried it. Queen had a tumultuous time in the trenches (huge thank you to Nica Rissi for helping me limp through the worst bits). I got a ton of agent interest and even went through an R&R from hell, but ultimately, everyone passed. Luckily, while Queen was out, I started working on a second project, an adult high fantasy I’d nicknamed my “gay dragons.”
By the time my gay dragons were ready to query, Patrice had become an agent and officially opened up to queries. I’d heard nothing but good things about her from her time as an editor, so it was a no-brainer I would query her. She loved my gay dragons, and when we talked, I mentioned Queen, which still held a large place in my heart. Patrice read Queen and loved it too. She even had an editorial vision for it that I thought was absolutely brilliant.
I signed with her, and she worked with me editorially as I reimagined the world of Queen from the ground up, including creating a new magic system and changing the name to BLOOD DEBTS.
It’s probably cliche to recite the sometimes frustrating adage, “everything in its time,” but I’m confident that without a doubt having to wait for Patrice to become an agent was worth everything--and I’d do it all over again without question.
What are your biggest takeaways from the querying process? What particular advice would you give to fellow Black male authors when seeking representation? Are there any red flags that signal someone may view you more as a ‘collection item’ than as a potential client?
My biggest takeaway from querying is to keep busy and don’t give up. Querying is irrefutably the WORST part of the publication process, but the best way to deal with it is to keep the creative pipeline full. Typically, while I’m drafting and revising a story, I’m planning another in the background; so while the current project is out for submission, I can distract myself by working on something new and shiny. That way, if the previous thing doesn’t work out, it’s not as difficult to shift gears, since I’m already deep into the next thing. That process is what helped link me with my agent after having to shelve Queen. My gay dragons were ready to go out, and also my craft had leveled-up significantly between projects owing to my ritual of trying to take a bit of time to study craft between projects and reading recent books in the genre of my next project.
For my fellow Black male authors, and any POC author for that matter, my advice would be to take some time to develop and understand the core of your story as well as your author brand and where you want to take your career. Part of the jobs of agents and editors is to help elevate our stories and us, but not to change the core or the heart of either. If an agent or editor tried to change that important core of your story to something that feels inauthentic to you (which is not the same as helping you FIND the core of your story), listen to that anxious voice in your gut that tells you something’s not right. It might be something a simple conversation could correct, or it might be a sign to run for the hills. Always, if you’re unsure of anything, reach out to another trustworthy person in your community to get an outside perspective and advice on how to move forward. There are so many great people who’re creating an outstanding community to help creators of color flourish, and we all need to lean into that more. We all we got.
What comes after an agent is an area of discussion that isn’t talked about as widely as the path to getting an agent. Once again, congrats on your book deal with Tor Teen! Would you share your submission journey with us?
Thank you! It’s still hard to believe sometimes that I’m getting the opportunity to share this story and these beloved characters who’ve lived rent-free in my head for nearly four years now.
As I mentioned before, after signing with Patrice, we did extensive editorial work on BLOOD DEBTS (formerly Queen), which took about 10 months and included a couple rounds of feedback and revision. It wasn’t nearly as bad as it sounds. Patrice and her intern Katalina were both incredible editorial partners, and I had a lot of fun working with them and reimagining my world, story, and characters from the ground up.
While I worked on revisions, Patrice developed a brilliant submission strategy for BLOOD DEBTS. I didn’t give much input other than my personal career goals, because I’ve never been hung up on dream imprints or editors; I just wanted my debut to find a home where the story and ME could both flourish.
I went into submission without overwhelming anxiety and trepidation, because Patrice had done such a great job preparing me that I was super confident in her process and the work we were submitting. I have to also thank my therapist for teaching me how not to stress so much about things outside my control--like submission. I knew that we all worked very hard on BLOOD DEBTS to position it in the best way possible, and whatever happened next would just happen and we’d deal with it as it came.
We got our first offer after only a couple weeks on submission, which took me by surprise (and isn’t common--so don’t feel bad if you are or have been on submission for far longer). Funny, because I’d gotten the call from Patrice hours after having one of the most frustrating work conference calls I’ve had in a long time. Getting that news from her yeeted all my prior work frustrations right out the window. A few other editors were interested as well, and Patrice was very patient with me (I’d never done any of that before, so I had TONS of questions) and helped me navigate a multiple-offer situation that ended with BLOOD DEBTS finding a home at Tor Teen with Ali Fisher, who has been an incredible partner so far.
The reason I am so happy with how things turned out is because I have an agent who’s always been committed to fighting for her clients and making sure we’re happy and taken care of--which is a prime example of why it’s so very important, ESPECIALLY as an author of color, to make sure you choose the right agent, one who will support, uplift, and fight for you, but will also lay the groundwork with you to help advance you and your career.
Your novel takes place in New Orleans—a city with a lush and rich history of magic, voodoo, good food, and sometimes the not-so-good stuff such as government corruption. What went into your choice for this novel’s setting and how big of a role would you say it plays in your novel?
I love New Orleans so much. The story has changed a lot since I first came up with the idea, but one thing that’s remained constant has been the setting. It’s interesting you mention that Nola is lush with magic, voodoo, good food, and not-so-good stuff like government corruption because those are all things you’ll find in BLOOD DEBTS.
Interesting Fact: The branch of magic in the Blood Debts story world that Clement and Cristina use is called “generational magic,” which I based on voodoo. All four of the primary branches of magic also have heavy cultural ties, which you’ll get to explore in-depth throughout the story.
Are there any historical or current events about New Orleans (or other places) that inspired your novel’s plot and themes? If so, what’s your process for integrating that into your stories?
One of the primary themes in BLOOD DEBTS is the pursuit of justice. While I didn’t draw on one particular historical moment as inspiration for this story, the battle for justice is one people of color have been fighting for centuries around the world for a vast number of reasons. You’ll find the focal characters of BLOOD DEBTS are each fighting for the justice they feel they’ve been denied, each in their own varied (and morally ambiguous) way.
Your novel centers queer Black characters. How would you describe the nuances of intersectionality when writing your characters?
There’s an inimitable nuance that comes from experience, and I believe that to be a critical ingredient for authentic storytelling. I channel a little of my lived experiences into nearly every character I write in one way or another, because that allows me to connect and fully commit to being in that moment with them--and then I’m able to translate that into a raw and authentic experience in-scene.
This is related to the previous question. What’s your take on the representation of queer Black/BIPOC characters in the books and the media? Do you feel as though they’re flat, multi-dimension, toxic, authentic, etc?
While there’s a lot of media that I haven’t yet consumed centering queer Black characters, I can say without question, we certainly have nowhere near “enough” (as if there could ever be “enough” after having spent the majority of my life forced to relate to people who I had nearly nothing in common with). Going forward, I want to see more of the complete spectrum of Black queerness and everything we can be, not just represented, but represented well. In every form of media possible, I want to see Black queer characters fall in love, I’m longing for some delightfully evil Black queer villains, I need Black queer superheroes, I’d like to laugh with Black queer comedy, I would love to play Black queer leads in major video games, and please, please--give me all the Black queer horror.
I struggle making blanket statements, because I haven’t consumed all the media there is out there, but it’s been my experience that if we are included, most often, Black queer characters are supporting or minor and very seldom leads. We need more stories that center US and our unique intersectional struggles. The children are starved, and I’d like to feed them well as long as I have this privilege.
You have an interest in screenwriting and television and film production. Whether it be books or a visual medium, what do you think makes good storytelling?
Robust character development. It gets me every. single. time. I love a complex character who’s rich with personality and history and voice and gorgeously flawed. I will follow them faithfully through the good and the bad, through this realm and the next. The sooner you can make me love you, the better. A few authors whose work I’ve read recently and have adored and who I also think craft absolutely masterful characters are Daka Hermon, Alexis Henderson, TJ Klune, and Tracy Deonn.
Great characters are also the main reason I love the Game of Thrones series so much, not to mention that series gave me my favorite villain of all time--Cersei Lannister (who also inspired a couple BLOOD DEBTS characters, but I’m not telling who yet). I will forever be enraged that she didn’t get the ending she (AND Lena Headey, nor any of the women with the exception of Sansa) deserved on the television show.
With a planned trilogy, I’m sure you have plenty of deadlines. Do you know when you’re at risk of burnout? What’s your form of self-care?
I have high-functioning anxiety and depression, which means I work hardest when I’m saddest--and while it sucks, it is quite Shakespearean haha. As such, I often fall victim to burning myself out. What I’ve been doing recently that’s been helpful has been paying more attention to the subtle signs my brain gives when it’s time to take a break. I was (am) guilty of constantly pushing myself, even when I was tired and needed rest, because my anxious brain had convinced me that my lack of productivity was the only reason why I hadn’t achieved my dreams yet… [PAUSE]
If you’re feeling similarly, please know this is a big fat lie--if you do your best and never give up, you’ll achieve your dreams in due time. Unfortunately, there’s no way to speed up the universe, so chill and enjoy the process. As long as you stay the course, you’ll get where you’re going--I promise.
[UNPAUSE] But I’ve learned to identify the initial signs that I’m tired, which usually manifests in my mind wandering helplessly or me trying to rush through a scene or section or task. The moment that happens, I stop for the day. Giving myself permission to stop (which also means not beating myself up about it afterward) has helped so much with allowing my brain and body time to rest and recharge. I’ve found that now I’m more creative and look forward to jumping back into work the next day (or later) as opposed to lamenting being tired all the time.
When I’m on a break, I love reading (no matter how busy I am, I try to read before bed every night), music (one of my friends recently got me into Afrobeats and now I can’t stop), and video games (hello fellow #gaymers). I love action-adventure games, shooters, and survival horror. I’m not good at competitive gaming like Call of Duty or Fortnite. Last time I tried playing COD online was a few years ago, and some kid told me I sucked so I left and never looked back hahaha (cries quietly inside).
Ok, now it’s time for the ‘fun’ questions: Your agent calls you up with two offers but there are scheduling issues cause you to choose one:
Co-author a memoir for Sasha Obama OR write the first three episodes of Jordan Peele HBO speculative fiction series
I adore Sasha Obama, but I suck at non-fiction, so the choice will be Jordan Peele, hands-down--and this is also a real-life dream of mine. I’m not going to ask how you knew this haha.
Unpopular book or writing opinion?
Video games are one of the most, if not the most, intriguing forms of storytelling--and Naughty Dog's The Last of Us series is the most masterful example of flawless and engaging storytelling that exists right now (I said what I said, don’t @ me). The way they explored the cycle of violence and revenge definitely inspired a similar theme in BLOOD DEBTS, which you’ll see unfold across the series as we wait to see who’s going to end up on the throne at the end.
Who’s the baddest witch: Marie Laveau, Prudence Blackwood, or Bonnie Bennett?
I love this question, as well as the choices, but I’m going to have to go with the OG, Marie Laveau!
Interesting Fact: Many, many, many drafts ago, when BLOOD DEBTS was still Queen, Cristina and Clement were descendants of Marie Laveau, who was also referenced in the book.
Pitch your author brand as a cocktail recipe.
My author brand would definitely be a bourbon and ginger ale, but the ginger ale has to be Vernor’s, because I’m a little bougie, and bourbon because I’m dark, strong, and bold.
This was so much fun! Thank you for having me!
Terry J. Benton-Walker is the author of BLOOD DEBTS, his magical YA contemporary fantasy debut on the way from Tor Teen in Winter 2023. He lives in Atlanta, GA.
Connect with Terry on Twitter (@terryjbenton), Instagram (@icecreamvicelord), Facebook (@tjbentonwalker), or his website: https://www.tjbenton.com.
Click here to add BLOOD DEBTS on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/56313335-blood-debts