How many times have you had a dynamic moment in life, and thought to yourself, “This should be a book?” Many of us probably consider writing a memoir or a novel at some point in our lives, and while the initial thought may be simple, it’s the follow through that can trip us up.
Author Lyah LeFlore is well versed in the focus it takes to persist in the writing field, and her latest BET series 8 Days a Week, which started as a novel series, then became a web series, and is now making its television debut on October 26, 2011, is a testament to her hard work.
LeFlore has a wide array of work on novels like Cosmopolitan Girls, Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, Wildflowers and Gerald and Eddie Levert Sr.’s non-fiction father-son guide I Got Your Back. The vibrant Gen-Xer’s teen series The Come Up (The World is Mine, Can’t Hold Me Down) became the foundation for the 8 Days a Week show she launched with BET in Summer 2011, and LeFlore attests that there is so much more to do in the world of television, film and stage.
We recently spoke at length with Lyah LeFlore about her career, and she offered some great advice for anyone wanting to hone their self-motivation. What is the most important thing any aspiring writer can do to get started? How does Lyah go outside of herself to write for characters in a different age group? How does she overcome career fear? Read on for the answers in UrbLife.com’s In My Business!
Did you always know that you wanted to be a novelist, or did you have other aspirations in TV and film writing?
Lyah LeFlore: No, when I actually started my career, I think I always had a mission to grow and to advance to becoming a developmental exec and then eventually a producer. That’s really where my head was, so when I started in the business in New York in the early ’90s, my mission was to [do that].
I started working at Nickelodeon to get there, [and my boss]was a guy named Herb Scannell and he was the VP of Programming at Nick. He really was my first mentor professional in the business. Once I really got in and started in the business, that’s when I learned about the power that producers have and that sort of thing.
I never wanted to be a writer. I actually ran from it, because I grew up in an artistic household. My mother is probably one of the most prolific writers that I’ve ever read. That’s who works have walked through my life. She’s a poet, a performing artist, and a retired college professor. So it’s very intimidating for me to think about writing. I also have two older sisters, but one of them is a writer and she is actually a published author. I think growing up having that, because I felt that they were two really great writers, and “What if my stuff sucks?”
Actually years later, once I’ve gone through the ranks of becoming a developmental exec and then turning into a producer, after working with so many writers and developing each year. To go in and pitch, to go in and find writers, to go into the networks and pitch, I became very frustrated, because when you’re going through the development process, you’re working with writers, you’re giving notes. It would almost be nail biting for me. I would be like, “I know how to fix this script” or “We could do it that way”… you hire a writer to do the job, you have to let the writer write. You have to be the developmental exec or producer on it and step out of the way.
I was fine with being that; I didn’t really want to be out of the way. So quietly for the first novel, it really was one of those things that I had been contemplating; I would love to write a book. How many times do you say that? You’re out with your friends, and you’re like “This should be in a book.”
I had been on the fence about doing it, but I think that because fear is one thing that I think is the most debilitating diseases people can have. It’s the one thing that really slows you down and keeps you from pursuing your dreams. I think fear, even with the first book, it was almost easier to work with another writer and have a co-author, but it also gave me the strength that I needed to recognize who I was as a writer. I think putting those words [“this should be a book”] in to action and acting upon a passion that I had was the best thing I could have done for myself.
What I say when I’m speaking out to aspiring writers or fellow writers is that we have to get out of our own way in terms of getting the written word out. That being said, I never set out to be a writer. I did set out to be a producer and to really learn this television thing. Eventually I would have loved to have jumped into film a lot sooner, because I love movies. I have yet to conquer that area and I’m working really hard to get to the film part, hopefully soon.
How, as an adult, are you able to relate to young people today versus what you grew up with?
LL: I have an amazingly fabulous niece. At the time [I was writing], she was a freshman in college. I have two amazing nephews, one was a senior in high school and one was a junior. All of their drama, particularly my niece whom I’m really close with, all throughout high school I got an earful of her drama every day.
From a standpoint today, I think I was pretty up to speed on what young people are doing, thinking, and how they are talking, communicating… or lack of communication, especially with this texting. I watched them all one day and literally they never said a word to each other, they were just on their phones. I wanted to slap everybody, because I was like, “Oh my goodness, do you people still talk?! Do young people still talk to each other?”
I think having them around really inspired me. I really was inspired by my niece and nephews, their lives, their friends, and watching them all interact. My niece and nephew, who are brother and sister, lived in [Washington], DC. I think that DC has everything, the politics, to all of the different cultures. It just has a lot going on, plus being on the East Coast right up the road from New York, the music, Go-Go, everything. I was fascinated with that world, so my teen book series The Come Up is actually set in DC. My new web show for BET is based on the series.
Usually actors are much older than high school and college students they play, they just look really young. Have you had to give any guidance to any of the actors as far as what these characters are thinking, and what your mindset was when you wrote the story?
LL: I did a lot of my research by spending time around young people, and I also mentor a lot of girls in college. Whether it’s sending them money for books or just being available to talk through their problems when they don’t want to go to their parents, and career advice and all of that stuff. I think I just pulled all of those things, those conversations, and rolled them in one ball, so when it came time to adapt the book into the web show and script form, it was easy to do that.
So when it came to casting 8 Days A Week, I really wanted and really tried to make a real effort in the creative process and even working with the director, and Robi Reed and her team [in casting]. I didn’t want to get 30-year-old people to play these characters. I was really holding on and wishing that BET kept it with being high school students, but we met in the middle and they were right out of high school or a couple of years out.
I didn’t want to see another show where you see young people or people in a position where they already “made it.” I wanted to see the struggle to get there, to even getting your first real job or your first real paycheck or the first time you get an apartment, all of those things.
The great thing is that many of the actors’ lives [and]personal stories connect to the characters that I created. Rather it’s Irocc Williams who is the young man that plays Blue Reynolds, as well as Nick Green [aka Six] and Justin Jacoby [aka Micky Munday], all three of them are recording artists. I think Nick Green released a mixtape the day that the show came out.
The female actresses are just phenomenal. Skye Townsend, who is Robert Townsend’s daughter, I have been following her for the past two years because she has a huge internet base and she has her sketches with the Beyoncé-based character that she imitates. She is a very, very talented, creative, very mature, she’s the baby of the group. She just turned 18. She’s really, truly this young, creative, beautiful mind who writes and has all of these things happening in her head all of the time.
The Jade character on the show, although she is in college and dreams about being a doctor or a psychologist working with children, her spirit is very innocent, very open, and she’s very determined. The fiery part of her will come out, Lord willing, if they order some more episodes and hopefully this will hit the actual network airwaves.
Skye Marshall, who plays Zoe, is probably a little more seasoned of the group. She’s a little bit older than everyone else, she’s actually the person who’s been out there and had some roles, and has been sharpening her acting chops for a while. Skye has this spiritual cool vibe, and that’s what Zoe’s character is. I think that they all just really connected with the material and saw themselves mirrored in the character, and that always makes it worth it. Great for a writer, but actors for sure.
What are some ways that you personally had to address and overcome fears in your career?
LL: This is really simple for me. It’s not simple at the time, when you’re grappling with fear, but I think having a strong faith base and just being spiritually centered. When I get off track it gets me back on track. It was the thing I really tapped into in order to kick myself to get off of my butt. I truly feel that our talents come from God and when you are blessed, that blessing will be taken away if you don’t use it.
I finally settled myself enough. You have to settle yourself enough to hear that voice speak to you and will guide you. Some people hear voices that probably mean they should be in a lot of stuff, or they will hear the wrong kind of voice. On a serious note, for me it was about listening to the voice and getting myself spiritually centered to say, “Look, you’ve got this talent and you don’t want to disappoint God.”
From there it was, “Wow, this would really make my mom proud.” So I pushed myself as I’ve done from the very beginning, for every book to be better, to write better to impress her and make her happy. I figured once I got that first book out, and especially with the second book, that to me legitimized it all.
I think that I was still a little bit afraid after the first book. She even told me, “Ok now, I know you got it and I know where you’re going to go with this thing.” For me, it was her acceptance and also spiritually getting myself centered and shutting out the noise, all of that to write.
Given all of the experience that you have, what would you say are the most important steps someone should be taking now to get into your line of work?
LL: Young people today are not reading like they should. I think it’s because there is so much out here digitally and the media, everything that just swirls around them, they’re not really focused. I think reading books and knowing the writers that came before you – the classics – is important. I really try to stress this to young, Black people, because I feel like our kids really aren’t reading a lot and are not as aware and knowledgeable as they should be and we need to be.
I was talking to a young girl that I was mentoring in Mississippi, and it’s like the schools don’t want our kids to learn. The education system is broken, the teachers are underpaid, and we have to support our teachers if we want our kids to get better. That’s a whole other interview.
With that being said, this young lady was about to go into her senior year of high school, and she didn’t know any of the works of Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. She didn’t know Richard Wright and Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. She didn’t know any of that, so I started sending her books. I sent her I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings because she is a southern girl in poor Mississippi and she has dreams, and sometimes you just need to open a book to do that. She’s since graduated and is now a freshman at a university in Mississippi, so I’m super proud of her.
If you want to be a writer, know the writers that are out there. A lot of young people today [across the board]are not writing well. Again, it goes back to the educational system. They aren’t writing. They spend so much time texting and doing the shorthand, they are writing their papers like that and talking like that. You cannot be a great writer if you don’t have a grasp of the English language, and if you cannot properly structure a sentence and know grammar and tense. It’s great that you want to be a writer, but you need to sharpen your tools. You have to practice, just like if you play sports.
I would also say get some discipline. I will say for me, even when I’m not on a deadline with an editor or something, I’ll give myself self-imposed deadlines. I still slip back and have to remind myself of rules as well, but set goals. The goals don’t have to be so farfetched; they can be just basic, realistic goals. You know, “I’m going to write in my journal every day.”
Which brings me to my next thing, I still keep a journal. Sometimes I will start a new one because I like having pretty journals. That’s the one time you have to yourself, your secret thoughts, and your place that you can find refuge in. I don’t care if you’re 9 or 90, write in a journal. Some days I get lazy and I’ll go for weeks without writing in it, but I get back to picking it up and writing.
You never know, your journal entries could turn into your first novel, which happened in my case. Even though it was fiction, I dabbled a lot from my experiences of coming to New York from the Midwest at 21-years-old. My 20’s were awesome because I was able to be in a place like New York.
Going forward, what can we expect from you?
LL: My focus now is on 8 Days a Week. Doing great interviews like this, where I’m able to talk about the show. Getting another novel done, I have to shift gears for that. That is a big part of my life and I’m ready. I think I had gotten a little burned out. For Wildflowers, I was able to collaborate with my mother. My mother wrote all of the poetry for the book, which really gave a clear picture of Lyah LeFlore the author. That really for me was my grown-up writing style, who I am now, and where I’m looking to go.
I’m looking to get a novel going, to get a sketch of it and the lay of the land, and also the editors can pick it up and I can go off and write it and get it out. Now that I’ve jumped back into the ring of fire so to speak with television with 8 Days a Week, I’m really taking the time to get another series going. I’m actually working on an idea now I want to take out and pitch. Having a [current]show and it being shot so beautifully, it always helps when a director can see your vision and help bring it to life and that’s what happened to this piece.
I’m finishing up a feature script. I’m looking to move into film. I want to wear these three hats: author, TV writer/producer, and film writer. That’s what’s on the horizon. I wanted to start sharpening and getting my directing tools together, because I think that if you can do all of that, particularly as a woman in this business and be the triple threat, it makes it where you can get and do so much more and have more power.
I also made my directorial debut with a stage production called Rivers of Women, and I’m really proud of it because my mother [Shirley LeFlore] wrote the piece. The music was amazing, the writing was amazing, and it’s really a powerful message with focus on women, family, and relationships that women have with each other, love, politics, religion, all of that. A cast of four women and two dancers, it was great. I’m hoping to get that touring around the country, and getting into theaters and off Broadway. Who knows what’s next?
LIKE Lyah LeFlore at Facebook.com/LyahBethLeFlore
Find out more about Lyah LeFlore’s The Come Up book series at WhatsTheComeUp.com