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Today’s guest is Jennifer Marie Brissett! Her short fiction has appeared in FIYAH, The Future Fire, Lightspeed Magazine, Motherboard VICEUncanny Magazine, and many other publications, and she’s also contributed to anthologies and collections such as Sunspot Jungle and Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler. Her science fiction debut novel, Elysium, won the Philip K. Dick Special Citation Award, was a finalist for the Locus Award for Best First Novel, and was selected for the Tiptree Award Honor List. Destroyer of Light, her second novel, is coming out this summer!

Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett Cover Image

The Sophomore Book
by Jennifer Marie Brissett

“It takes a lot of work to make it as a writer, and the writing isn’t the hardest part.”

These are words I wish I had heard years ago when I started this journey.


My career began “late” by many people’s standards. For most, I suppose this would be about my age. For others, it would be because I didn’t begin writing when I was eleven years old. But for me, “being late” means that I don’t have several rejected books under my bed. Folks who have those have no idea how much of an advantage they have. I know that to them it feels like they are accumulating failure. Yet, I can clearly attest to anyone that a bunch of unsold books gathering dust under their mattress means that they are literally lying on a pile of gold like a sleeping dragon.

Completing a first book is a major milestone for any writer. Whether that book remains under their bed until the day they die or sells to a publisher, it tells a writer that “yes, you can do this!” The second, or sophomore, book tells a writer that the first book wasn’t a fluke and that “yes, you can do this again and again!” It is possible, maybe even likely, that neither of these books sell—at least not right away. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

It can take years to get a writing career going and that’s not always a reflection on the quality of the writing. Sometimes the work simply is not in tune with what’s selling at the moment. 90% of success is just showing up. So aspiring writers should be constantly writing and sending out work. So, what do you do if you are producing all this writing but it’s also constantly being rejected? Well, we writers have a saying, “Trunk it,” which means that we file it away somewhere. But that doesn’t mean that the story or even novel is dead. On the contrary, one day when your career is finally moving, you will find that pile of rejected and/or unsold work will be a wealth of material to draw from to either present to your agent or publisher for publication, or to gather ideas from for your next new project. You will be able to basically steal from yourself!

This may be all well-and-good for those who’ve been working for years and years at their writing—you lucky so and so’s 🙂—but what about folks like me who started “late”? I began writing in my late 30s; went to grad school of creative writing when I was 40; and, sure, I now have a bunch of stories in print and a book that did very well with a small publisher (Elysium, Aqueduct Press). But… this is the point at which a “normal” writer could pull from that pile of unsold books and stories that have been rejected over the years. I have none of that. Everything I have is being produced right now in the moment. That’s a huge disadvantage I have. It makes me slow to turn out new books and seem less prolific in a field that prizes the next book yesterday.

So what has it been like working on my sophomore book—it’s been exhausting. Life happens when you’re a writer even when you would like it to stop for a minute so you can catch your breath. There are so many distractions. Like every other working writer, I have a life that I have to manage while I produce my work. And I’ve felt under pressure while writing this very emotionally difficult book—my sophomore book—because I’ve felt (feel) that this book could make or break my career. In all fairness, this is probably not true. Regardless of what happens with this book, I probably still will be able to continue writing and publishing. The important thing to understand is that feeling that my career depended on how this book turned out helped to make writing the book maybe a bit more difficult than it should have been. This is how having books already gathering dust under my bed would have been helpful. I wouldn’t have been starting from zero. There would have been a little crutch for me to lean on when I was feeling terrified of the blank page.

But there are advantages to writing by the seat of my pants. One of them is that all my writing is guaranteed fresh and immediate. I’m writing about what I’m thinking now at this age—not what I was thinking at twenty. I’m writing with all the wisdom of a lifetime to guide my prose. There is a no-nonsense sensibility to what I write, too. Playtime for me is over. There’s no slackness of trying something “just cus…” When I write and publish something, know that I have not compromised on content and that I fought like a lioness for every word that I thought mattered.


Another aspect of having my sophomore book come out is that I have the experience of the first to teach me a lot about the field. Not everything, but a lot. I have learned that whether someone can make a career of writing has less to do with their writing as it does with a writer’s business sense. Talent actually is not rare. I’ve met a lot of talented people. I’ve taught a lot of talented people, too. But having the good sense to treat people with decency, and even to help others along the way, are not lessons that everyone learns, but are also a part of a writer’s success. Knowing who to associate with (other writers, agents, publicists, mentors, etc.), who you choose to support, who has chosen to support you, even knowing who to leave behind because they are holding you back, are all factors in the success, middling, or failure of a career. This is hard stuff.

At this point, I’ve encountered a lot of people in the science fiction and fantasy field. It’s amazing how easy and fast it is to meet folks, especially if you have a book that is doing well. Some people have been absolutely lovely; others have been the devil’s own. I have learned not just as a writer, but as a person, that along with being kind, it’s also important to be smart. Not everyone you meet in this field should be your friend. Watch what a person does, not just what they say.

Another thing I’ve learned since my first book came out is that writers have a tendency to hear the criticism louder than we hear the praise. At least I can definitely say that about myself. It’s important to learn to be tough enough to tune out the noise. A critique on a work-in-progress from your writer friends is far different than a published review. One is for the benefit of the writer. The other definitely is not. Even as I received a lot of praise for my first book there were those who went out of their way to personally accuse me of some very unkind things. Is this because I am a woman? Is this because I’m black? Is this because I’m both? I don’t know. I can’t read into their minds. But now I have the experience from my first book to tell me how I can’t afford to be distracted by this stuff. Distractions can fill my head, and all my next books are only in my head. Since I don’t have a pile under my bed to draw from, I have to stay doubly focused because these distractions can hamper my writing.

Whether I have what it takes to make it as a science fiction and fantasy writer depends on how I handle the next few months. Which bridges I choose to build, and which I choose to napalm, can determine how far I go in this field. I need to choose wisely. Moving from a small press to a large one has required more compromises than I ever imagined. It has actually been quite difficult. I’ve truly needed the group of more seasoned authors that I’ve built over the years to gather advice from, and I’ve tapped that wisdom pool several times. (Thanks, guys!!) The image of the solitary writer creating a masterpiece all by themselves is a complete utter (excuse the pun) fantasy. It simply doesn’t happen that way. Every successful book has tons and tons of people behind it—and not just the editors, agents, and publishers—but the friends, fellow writers, and the loving spouses (who patiently listened to you go on and on about how tough this writing game is for years on end) are also a part of the success story.


In the end, I feel that I have to trust the instincts that I have developed over the course of a lifetime to guide me. My sophomore book may or may not be successful. Only time will tell. But I will lean on the lessons from the publication of my first book as well as my life experiences to carry me through. For me, this means trying hard to stay focused and to tune out distractions. It also means that I won’t be messing with people who are problematic. As Maya Angelou once said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

This is my life now. I chose this. I write because I love writing. It’s given me much joy to share my stories with others. But everything comes with a cost. That’s what James Baldwin meant by the “Price of the Ticket.” How much am I willing to pay to be the thing I want to be, which in my case is a successful science fiction and fantasy writer? We’ll find out in the next few months and years. Wish me luck.

Jennifer Marie Brissett Photo Jennifer Marie Brissett once owned an indie bookstore in Brooklyn called Indigo Café & Books. Now she is an author and has written the novel ELYSIUM (Aqueduct Press) which won the Philip K. Dick Special Citation Award and was a finalist for the Tiptree and Locus Awards. Her sophomore novel DESTROYER OF LIGHT (Tor Books) will be published in the summer of 2020! She currently is a professor of Creative Writing in the MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University. She lives in NYC. Her website can be found at www.jennbrissett.com