“Always take it to the next level. When you’re writing your first book and you’re struggling with it, that’s good.”
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, Terah Edun, writes high fantasy novels for young adults centering on the adventures of kick-ass heroines who grow, laugh, learn, and love as they prosper.
Terah has also earned a spot on multiple best seller lists, including the Top 15 Fantasy authors on Amazon, the Most-Read Author on Kobo, as well as charting on Barnes & Noble and iBooks. Here, Terah shares with IndieReader her lessons learned in the self-publishing world, what inspires her and her work as a humanitarian aid worker in South Sudan.
Maya Fleischmann (MF): Can you tell me how many books you have written, and how many of those are New York Times bestselling titles?
Terah Edun (TE): I’ve written eleven young adult fantasy books with two on their way to eReaders as we speak and I am lucky enough to have been a NYT bestseller with one of those titles – my lovely urban fantasy book about witch Queens in the American South and a USA Today bestseller with my high fantasy titles.
MF: How did you get started writing this genre starring strong, female protagonists?
TE: I’ve always written my books as a message to girls and teens everywhere: Be Brave! When I worked in South Sudan, the world’s newest country, I saw the resilience, the spirit, and the determination I want to convey in my books every day. Passing that on to a young adult audience through my books is one of the greatest things I can accomplish. To show young girls that, that they are capable of more than they know. Every line I write is intended to impart a sense character-building to young adults and because I write romance and magical adventures that are tailored to teens, I wouldn’t have it any other way!
MF: What do you like most about your genre?
TE: Even though all of my series are young adult fantasy, my readership ranges from middle school to adult. I love that! I love that young adult is flexible and that parents as well as children feel comfortable reading my books and enjoy them together. My young-to-older audience has always been my greatest source of pride, to the point that when I got an email from a teen reader at the Athens-Limestone Public Library that simply said “Amazing! It’s like Tamora Pierce but bloodier…” I nearly burst with pride.
Because that’s who I’m writing for.
As an aside, as a self-published author I never thought that one day I would see my books in catalogs in libraries and on the shelves in bookstores but every time I look around a new surprising opportunity has opened up to me that allows me to connect on a deeper level with my core genre of readers in high fantasy and across all age ranges.
MF: What’s your process for writing? Do you map out your characters and series or do they and the story develop as you write?
TE: I’m very much a pantser, as in I write ‘by the seat of my pants’, instead of a plotter in regards to my books. I love to take my characters by the hand and follow them through their adventures where I’m just as surprised as they are when things go right and wrong. However when I begin a series, I do have a general idea of where I want to end up. It’s not set in stone as to which characters will survive until the ending or how it will come about but the vision for that last scene is always what I’m running towards in my mind as each new book is written.
MF: What theme keeps cropping up in your books?
TE: Social justice I think is the simplest way to put it. Topics from international political issues like child marriage to emotional stresses like depression and mental wellness. I believe that teens and young adult readers are smart and want to know more about the world they live in. I use my writing to address big issues from contemporary reality that are difficult topics to discuss as a young person or to give readers who may not realize, for example, that the gender and nationality they were born with could determine their access to education, insights into societies that may be very different from their own. My primary series, Courtlight, is framed in the narrative of a young woman who is ostracized in her small village and wants more, in the process of choosing a new destiny she begins to explore an empire with longstanding cultural clashes between mythical races, as well as a political tensions between ruling parties.
MF: You began to self-publish because you wanted to pay off your school loans – which you did (and more). You make it sound easy, but what parts of the publishing process were the most challenging?
TE: The publishing part is actually easy. Thanks to the platform that Amazon KDP provided for me at the very start, all I had to do was write and prepare the book. Once it was ready they distributed it to millions of readers at the click of a button. It’s what comes after that’s hard in my opinion. I’ll never forget the first time I self-published way back in 2013. I was nervous about this big step in my life with questions like: a) what if my bosses didn’t like the fact that I was writing fiction? (I refused to use a pen name but that’s another story) or b) what if the formatting was wrong? But as soon as that book went live on Kindle, every self-doubt went away, it just felt right. More than that, it looked amazing. There was my name, next to my cover, on Amazon.com. I couldn’t believe it then and sometimes I can’t believe it now.
However just because publishing was made an easily understandable process, doesn’t mean that marketing was. How to get your books in front of readers, what it meant to make my books available by print on demand with CreateSpace (spoiler: it’s awesome, my librarian contacts love the paperbacks), and questions like – what does a sales rank really mean were all things I had to learn. But the opportunities that were opened up to me by KDP are things I’d never dreamed of before and as I developed more skills as a publisher and author, I learned that nothing was impossible.
MF: What are the top three lessons have you learned from self-publishing?
* Be innovative. Self-publishing is a rollercoaster that never ends. You have to be flexible, brave, and have inspiration to keep going in this journey. Luckily I have all of that in spades.
* Persistence is key. I started three years ago with no idea how to market my books, now I can say that I’m in libraries in half the United States, translated into five languages, and have loyal readers. I didn’t get there instantly, it took hard work.
* Write the next book. Your best marketing tactic is always a new book.
MF: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
TE: Always take it to the next level. When you’re writing your first book and you’re struggling with it, that’s good. I honestly believe that it’s because I pushed myself to write beyond my comfort zone, whether that’s the genre, the characterization, or the plot line, that I became who I am today.
Once you have a book, I always say have a strategy and a goal. Even if it is as simple as selling 10 books in your first month, because when you hit that milestone you won’t believe how good it feels to say I did that, I made it!
My ‘I made its’ have changed over the years, from a sales goal of 1,000 books in a month for instance to get getting books in bookstores nationwide. But the goals always start in the same place – by hitting the publish button and getting the next book up on Amazon.
MF: You were born in the Atlanta metropolitan area, moved to the Northeast region for college, and now live in South Sudan?
TE: Yes! I’ve hopped around which is funny because I come from a very traditional Southern family (on my mother’s side) where the good majority stay below the Mason-Dixon line. 😉 I joke but from the time I was 18 I’ve lived or worked in Morocco, South Sudan, Kenya, Italy, Spain, and the United Arab Emirates. Now I am moving to Washington D.C. and I am so excited to connect with the international scene there. One day I’d like to expand my time abroad even further, eight months in India and a year in Russia would be awesome.
MF: Tell me about your work in South Sudan as a humanitarian aid worker for people in need of basic assistance.
TE: While living in South Sudan I provided communications assistance for international non-governmental agencies and the government of South Sudan itself. As an aid worker I traveled throughout the country to understand the needs of the people and to learn in their own words what it means to have independence and self-determination that they fought so long for. It was during those year-long that I really got to know the local communities, understand what it we in the western world take for granted – clean drinking water and maternal health care for instance. It was a very rewarding job to take the stories and initiatives of the South Sudanese people, who face the enormous challenge of building a country from the ground up, and give them a voice beyond their borders.
MF: How does this work and current location inspire you, your stories or characters?
TE: I started writing my writing career well in my early twenties and as I developed my own voice for the first time, I am incredibly lucky to have been surrounded by people who exemplify some of the characteristics that are the focal emphasis in my books to this day: compassion, strength, ingenuity, and perseverance. I learned from the example of the young women and girls of South Sudan how to exemplify some of the best values in the world through my writing. Which is why I always focus now not only on the type of story that exemplifies their extraordinary will, but also on the type of story that I always loved reading as a young girl, the high fantasy coming of age tale with a female heroine that transcended boundaries, a story with a never-ending saga of twists-and-turns, of new friends and old companions, and most of all—a tale that comes from the heart.
MF: Who are you reading now?
TE: Flamecaster by Cinda Williams Chima!
MF: Tell me about your last/latest project.
TE: I recently finished Book 8 in the Courtlight series (Sworn to Sovereignty) and am talking to bookstore managers now about getting the hardcover of Book 1, Sworn To Raise, stocked in their stores with swag in each signed order.
You can see the awesome trailer here
I’ve got some great stores lined up and I’m really excited for the swag, which my core readers helped me pick out! One of the most amazing things about being a self-published author – I can choose to work with amazing individuals at any point of my career and I’m so grateful to the booksellers, librarians, readers, and retailers who have welcomed me with such open arms.
MF: Do you have a favorite quotation from one of your characters? If so, what is it? Who says it? What is the context?
TE: I don’t really have one favorite quote but I will say that it’s always the ones that resonate fervently with readers that surprise me the most.
I posted this one on my Twitter just a few days ago after reader highlights on Kindle (yes, I pay attention!) picked it as a fan favorite:
“You are a Weathervane child. You’re better than this. Better than them.”