Degrees and Writing Things: Avione Lee
Once upon a time, a little girl had a dream
She always loved books and other academic things
Calculations, measurements, research, math formulas--it all made her jump for glee
She really, really put those brain cells to work, getting multiple degrees!
But one day, academia wasn't all it seemed
Publish or perish! Good lord, what a life!
But she did want to see her words in print...
Not quite sure what it meant
So off she went, on a magical road trip
Trekking from state to state
Taking in all of the nation's wonders and sights
Filling her creative well and writing away into the wee hours of the night
Until one day, she had a thing...
Tears in her eyes, cramped hands, and a crooked smile, she typed...
Keep on reading for the rest of Dr. and Author Avione Lee's story!
1. Welp, the first question is the one I’m sure you’ve answered many times, but everyone loves to know. Please tell us all about your writing journey (querying-publication)
Sure! This is actually the first time I’ve talked about it, so this could be fun! I first started writing this book back in fall/winter of 2016 though I have had the idea for it for several years. However, whenever I started writing it earlier, I always ran into a wall. Then the election of 2016 happened, and I was like, okay, let me funnel all my anger and frustration constructively into actually finishing this book. It was November 7th, so I basically gave myself my own NaNoWriMo and said I would finish it in one month by December 7th. It got finished, hallelujah, haha. But lord, was it a mess. Some chapters were just one paragraph saying, “Okay, he goes here and does this,” and then I kept it moving to the next chapter.
But that did give me something to work with, so I kept at it with DVPit and Pitch Wars as my goal. I entered DVPit maybe three times with this manuscript and got about five bites total, which, hilariously, were the same three agents each time. But the real value in DVPit for me was honing that one-line pitch and also in the free editor or agent query + first 5-page critique if you won that giveaway. I was lucky enough to be one of the winners each DVPit season.
One of the critiques I got that was so helpful was from Genevieve Gagne-Hawes. She really dug into my query and critique and offered such great feedback that I could extend to the entire manuscript! Plus, she did it in like five days! So I took her feedback and made edits until I thought it was good enough to enter in Pitch Wars 2019.
Luckily the wonderful Shakirah Bourne liked my manuscript and took me on as her mentee. We spent the next three months getting this manuscript into shape for the showcase. Unfortunately, the showcase did not get me any offers of representation, but Shakirah was in my corner the whole way and was suggesting other agents to send my manuscript to and just other avenues in general. She thought my voice might be more suited to English agents, so she suggested I try a few. One of her friends recommended that I send my manuscript to this new mentorship program at Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency in the UK (so much love to the Bajan community), so I sent it off in May of 2020 and got in! It was a HUGE surprise! That program came with representation, so I now had a lovely agent and agency that were going to help me get this manuscript even further into shape.
I edited the manuscript for about one and a half years after that until it was finally ready to go on sub in the Spring of 2022, and I got my first offer in June 2022.
As far as my stats, before Pitch Wars, I sent my query off to around 33 agents, with only two asking to read the manuscript. Those two also requested it at DVPit, but they ended up rejecting it. After Pitch Wars, I had 12 requests that ended in rejections or ghosts, and I also sent my manuscript off to around 65+ agents, which all ended in ghosts or rejections (but mostly ghosts). So, I was really happy and surprised that I was accepted into Pitch Wars and the MM Program!
2. My first name isn’t Avon, It’s Avione…Dr. Lee, if you’re addressing me (sorry I couldn’t help myself with the Janet Jackson reference). But whatever the salutation, you hold a very impressive background in academia and the STEM field. Has writing and the more left-thinking side of our brain always been a “thing” for you? Or was it a passion discovered later on in your life?
Ha ha! Thank you. Writing fantasy definitely took some getting used to with using the non-analytical side of my brain because I always wanted everything in my magical world to make sense. That would cost me days as I tried to figure out how in the world something magical worked in a scientific way. But then one day, I was like, maybe my goal should be to make it not make sense? At least to make it not make sense scientifically. Somehow that clicked for me, and I was able to write a lot easier after that!
As far as writing, this is something I started doing after graduate school. I think all the hours upon hours of concentrated study on a hard science somehow unlocked the other side of my brain to give my analytic side a break, haha. So, while studying, I would get an idea or two about a fun story and jot them down. That is how I got the idea for my middle-grade fantasy. I had been studying for what felt like 72 hours straight (though I’m sure I slept somewhere in there), and the idea just popped into my head.
3. Your debut, Min and The Perilous Pipe, is categorized as a middle-grade contemporary fantasy. As there is publishing hearsay of fatigue toward high fantasy novels, how do you think contemporary fantasy can draw readers back into the fantasy genre or attract new ones?
Middle grade is funny because we have to get through the adults first, right? So maybe the adult gate-keepers are getting tired of high fantasy, perhaps literary agents and editors might be getting tired of it, but kids + fantasy will never go out of style. That’s like saying, “Hey guys, there is too much candy around. It’s in Walmart and Target and CVS and Sam’s and that artisan candy store down the street; maybe we shouldn’t sell it anymore.” Tell a kid that and they’re like, say what?
I think the problem is that publishing is falling short in marketing it. You better believe Walmart knows how to market candy to kids. They put it right there in the checkout aisle so you will see it (to every single parent’s annoyance). So how can we get these middle-grade books right there too? If a kid sees a dragon or a unicorn on a book while waiting in that checkout aisle. I bet they pick it up.
But to your point about high fantasy vs. contemporary fantasy. With the recent mega-success of contemporary fantasy books like Amari and the Night Brothers, Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun, The Marvellers, Skandar and the Unicorn Thief, and Nevermoor, it does feel like contemporary fantasy is undergoing a resurgence. And one of the coolest parts is that some of the hottest books have POC leads! I think B.B. Alston tweeted that Amari sold something like 250,000 books in its first year. That is insane.
But there is room for everyone because after finishing Amari, I bet that kid’s parent is looking for something else to keep this reading momentum going, so maybe they will give them one of those other books I mentioned. Or maybe they will give them A Taste of Magic or Josephine Against the Sea or any Rick Riordan Imprint book. Or maybe they could try something new and pick up fantasy horror like Bethany and the Beast or Grounded for all of Eternity. Parents want their kids to read, they just need to know that the books are out.
4. Middle grade is an age category that has always been steady, but recently it has been perceived as a “hot” age group. For authors who might want to test the MG waters, what are your tips for writing in this space?
I don’t know if I am the best person to give advice since it took forever and a day for me to get an agent, and barely anyone actually read the manuscript, haha. But I can say that middle-grade fantasy is all about getting to the good stuff and making kids live out a fantasy or experience that they might never do in real life.
So, sneaking out of your bedroom in the middle of the night to get into some mischief that might save the day? Yes, definitely. Sneaking out of your bedroom just because you want to hang out with a friend? Also, yes. Staying in your bedroom because your parent/guardian/authority figure told you to? That’s a no, son.
5. Min and the Perilous Pipe is inspired by a fairy tale and explores themes of lost culture. What inspired you to create this story, and what do you hope it inspires in your readers?
I was inspired a great deal by my immediate family of my husband and kids, which is multicultural. Any parent raising multicultural kids will have that fear that their kid is missing out on some aspect of their culture that they want them to have. So, while writing Min and the Perilous Pipe, I kept thinking of that and wondering about a kid who didn’t get to experience one side of their culture, in this case, a magical culture, and how it would feel to get introduced to it. I completely looked at magic as a cultural experience for my main character and what that would mean in terms of fitting in and character development.
I was also highly inspired by HBCUs. I went to an HBCU which was the absolute best time of my teens/early twenties life. It was just an amazingly nurturing, relaxing, zero-stress environment when it came to race or culture because you didn’t have to explain anything to anyone, they already knew, so it was a non-issue. So, you could talk about other things like the latest horror movie everyone was flipping out about or the halftime show. Plus, the community that HBCU graduates have is so amazing and wonderful. I put that love of HBCUs in this book in how my character tries to fit in and find his place in this magical community. Hopefully, it shows!
6. Pitch Wars, Fellowships, Workshops! You have participated in a vast amount of writing programs and mentorships. If you had to think of the biggest way these have influenced your craft or what you want in your writing career, what would it be?
They each influenced it in different ways! For Pitch Wars, child, when I say I didn’t know anything, I was Boo Boo Magoo levels of writing knowledge. So Shakirah really helped me in learning writing beats, only writing for the beat, and in how to structure a manuscript to maintain the pace. She helped me in other things as well, like really letting my voice out and in getting my main character more active.
For the Madeleine Milburn Program, my agent was so wonderful in helping me with pace, but also in figuring out how to make each of my characters distinct while simultaneously cutting Bookoo amounts of words because middle grade should ideally be around 60-69k for a fantasy debut (there are tons of exceptions, though), and my novel was pushing 92k in some dark moments of my revision, haha.
I just completed the Odyssey Writing Workshop this summer, and it was by far the biggest wake-up call I had to writing. This was an intensive 6-week workshop focused entirely on craft, where I dedicated 10-15 hours each day to writing or studying the craft of writing. It was, honestly, outstanding and highly recommended for anyone who is serious about becoming a better writer and who is okay with receiving many, many critiques about their writing. The Odyssey Program helped me work on my weaknesses, which were substantial, while also improving my strengths. I loved Odyssey so much and highly recommend it.
Moving forward, I hope to use all I learned from these three programs to focus on sinking the reader into the story, so they are all enveloped in it. I really love when I experience that from a book and hope to give that experience to readers as well.
7. Do you know when you’re at risk of burnout? What’s your form of self-care?
Since I have gone through a lot of intense stem research programs and research positions, I do know when I am at risk for burnout and have learned how to naturally incorporate me-time or "happiness breaks" in my intense writing days, especially when on deadline. My me-time or happiness breaks usually include walking through bookstores with a latte in hand, eating Breyers Natural Vanilla ice cream with chocolate magic shell topping, and lots of salt baths, haha!
Kid you not, when I was finishing up my edits to go on sub to publishing houses, I think I took a long soak in the bath every single night!
Also, because I spend so much time in front of a screen, I try and stay off social media and the internet in general when I don't have to be there. This not only frees up a tremendous amount of time that I can allocate to "me time," but it also saves me on internet or social media-related stresses which I think accounts for a lot of burnout people feel in today's society. In addition, I am really great at planning my time to the minute when I have a ton to do; this includes planning in break times and my lovely ice cream or bath times, haha.
Ok, now it’s time for the ‘fun’ questions!
8. Texas Forever. Your publisher has decided to throw you the biggest and baddest Lone Star State-style barbecue book launch in your hometown. The must-have items on the menu are___________
Brisket, more specifically, moist brisket (the kind with a huge layer of fat interwoven in it). I can’t be a Texan and not say that! To round out the meal, we must have fried catfish, crawfish, shish kabobs, and smothered lamb chops! Our side must-haves could be hushpuppies, hot water cornbread, macaroni and cheese, sweet potato souffle, 7-layer dip, and fried green tomatoes because I love them and rarely get the chance to have them. Okay, now I’m hungry!
9. Unpopular book or writing opinion?
People might come after me with pitch forks for this, but I say fold all the book pages you want! I love a good loved-on book.
10. The key to keeping curly hair hydrated and de-frizzified in the heat and humidity is_____
I am such a low-maintenance person that my hair is usually in two buns on the top or back of my head, and I just use hemp oil to keep it laid. But I have heard really good things about Bread Beauty Supply for wash and go's, so I hope to get my hands on that soon!
Right now, for conditioning, I love diving into my sister's stash of Bogavia Deep Conditioning Hair Treatment and Innersense Hair products. The Innersense products to check out are their Quiet Calm Curl Control, their Hydrating Mask, and their Sweet Spirit Leave-In Conditioner.
Thank you so much for the Interview, Elnora, this was really fun!
Bio: Avione Lee was born and raised in Texas, as indicated by her excessive use of the word y’all. She is an Odyssey Fellow, a Madeleine Milburn Fellow, and a Pitch Wars alum. Her debut novel, Pied: Min and the Perilous Pipe, will be published by Simon and Schuster in 2024, and she cannot wait for you to read it!
Book Announcement: https://www.madeleinemilburn.co.uk/news/new-deals/avione-lees-middle-grade-fantasy-min-and-the-perilous-pipe-acquired-by-simon-and-schuster/