Latinx Author Guest Spot: Dennis Avelar

This week, I have the pleasure of featuring another talented Latino author who recently published a novel about heritage, culture, and love for our planet. The Blue Q: The World As I See It tells the story of a world in peril and out of balance. The author, Dennis Avelar, vividly paints the story of our planet, the beings responsible its wellness and the selfish desires of those who are destroying it. It is an “all call” for all of us to come together to restore that which has been taken from the natural ecosystem.

Dennis Avelar is the youngest first-generation, American-born son of Guatemalan immigrants.  His parents taught him to value the importance of hard work, of staying focused on his commitments, and to invest as much as possible into his career and education. As a graduate of Columbia College Chicago’s film program, Avelar understand how visual arts play a key role to telling profound stories, which provide the basis of his written work. Professionally, he has experience in media research, local government, non-profit outreach, and small business operations, among others professional ventures. When given the opportunity to do so, he enjoys traveling, taking road trips, outdoor cycling and running, and spending time with his wife and his family. Avelar currently resides in Addison, Illinois.

Dennis Avelar, author of The Blue Q / El quetzal azul

When interviewed about his journey through the creative writing and publishing process, this is what Dennis shared:

What inspired you to become an author?

For me, it was both the love of telling stories and the power of the written word. I believe I was 12 years old when I wrote my first story. I enjoyed reading and I loved watching movies and playing video games that had strong storylines, but writing was not something I gave much thought. I do not know exactly how or why I wrote that first short story, though I do know that the protagonist of it was my brother, who to this day provides me an endless supply of real-life tales. Years later, I learned that my father photocopied the story, titled “My Big Brother”, and took it to his job. I later learned how that story had an impact on him; he told me how on particularly rough days at work – when he felt sad or upset or just felt like he was missing out on our lives – he would read the story and it never failed to lift his spirits. That’s when I learned that written words are more than just about entertainment, but instead they have the power to create action. If a four-page story was enough to turn anger and frustration into laughter, then the opportunity to create a more compelling story with greater results became my goal. Sadly, I was too young to follow-through with anything other than what captured my attention at the time, and in the years that followed I became more attracted to visual arts – theatre, cinema and television. The only person who constantly reminded me about writing was my mother. She never lost hope that I would eventually become a writer. Even while pursing my education in film studies, she only ever made one request: that I take just one writing class. After graduation and over 15 years of coming up with excuses as to why not to write anything other than homework assignments (oftentimes not my own), business documents, or scripts for a short web series, I had run out of reasons why I could not pursue what I most wanted. I found an idea for a story that I wanted to tell – one that would make an impact in many ways, but also one that could be set in the real world and become a catalyst for positive change. I went back to my roots, going as far back as the book that I loved when I was in 5th grade, and I found the inspiration in something that represents me. The spark started roughly 25 years prior, and it took me that amount of time to find the courage to convince myself that I wanted to be an author.

Where did you get the idea to write your book?

The idea actually came from a painting I requested of an aunt of mine who lives in Guatemala. My aunt is a talented painter whose passion is to create landscapes, butterflies, plants, and birds. On one particular occasion, I asked her to paint something special for me. I asked her if it would be possible to paint a bird, but not just any bird; I asked my aunt to paint a resplendent quetzal – the national bird of Guatemala and a symbol of freedom for all Guatemalan people – but to do so in a unique shade of blue. You see, the bird itself is bright green, with a prominent red-colored chest, and a set of long tailfeathers that stretch up to three feet in length. It is a beautiful sight to see one of them in person (from what I have been told), and because it is considered one of the most beautiful birds of the world, it is also endangered. My request of the painting was to have that same bird, only that instead of bright green and strong red, I asked of it to be painted in blue, with its chest colored white. Needless to say, my aunt thought that my request was peculiar, but she agreed to do it. Months later, my mother traveled to Guatemala and brought the artwork with her upon her return. When I saw it for the very first time, I froze in admiration of my aunt’s talent. I knew in that moment that there was more to that bird than what was in the painting. The blue quetzal had a name, it had a story, and it was a story that everyone on Earth needed to read. This had to be the start of something bigger, better, and greater than I had ever done before, and this blue bird was going to be it!

I must have admired the painting for maybe 10 minutes, then set it on my mantle, and failed to think of it as anything more than a pretty picture. Nine years passed, and while the painting itself never once moved from its location – never changed its stance, never altered its color – the discourse of my life changed entirely. I found myself at the lowest point I had ever been, filled with more emotions than I know to put on paper, and I had nothing but a trail of poor excuses as to why I did not pursue my passion. One day, out of the clear blue, I came home after an especially difficult day and noticed the painting once more. The same rush of thoughts I had when I first saw the blue quetzal came back to me, but now there was more to the story. This time, it became now or never. I set it in my mind that I would not waste this chance and that I was going to make something of this story, though I had not the slightest indication on where to begin. I studied movies – particularly the films of those I consider master storytellers – and the idea sparked at the moment I saw a bird in one, oftentimes overlooked scene of a children’s film, which prompted me to ask myself a single question: “I wonder what the origin story would be to that bird?” And that was it. I put pen to paper that same day, and did not stop the process for the next nine months. I learned as I went along, taking “advice” from the pages of the stories I loved most, and I became passionate about my story. It was more about writing the story that I wanted to tell and less about word count or page numbers. Once the noise became increasingly easier to silence, I discovered the endless joys found in the universe I created in my mind, then found a method in which to transfer that universe onto a cohesive storyline.

I still have that painting, and every time I see it I smile. That blue quetzal does have a name, as well as a story, a history, and a mission. It enabled me to discover something that I was unaware even existed, and I will forever be grateful that the answer I needed, when I needed it most, was in front of me the entire time.

Describe the book publishing process. What went smoothly for you? What challenges did you face?

There is a scene in the film Rocky Balboa in which the protagonist says this about life, “it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it”. The same could be said of the writing and publishing process. For me, I had no clue what I was doing. After the final draft of the manuscript was completed, I approached someone who worked in book printing, and he was kind enough to provide me with a checklist of “to-do’s”. I also found that there are people on the web who genuinely want to help, and others who want to take advantage of our lack of knowledge and experience. I discovered a cover artist who was kind enough to understand and interpret my vision for the cover. I watched a number of YouTube training videos to learn things like page layouts, how to typeset, page sizes, ISBN numbers, bar codes, and so much more. I spent hours upon hours of my free time learning how to structure what was originally written in one program to make it work in another, only to get though almost the entire book and learn that I had to start over. It was a time of trial and error that was far more frustrating and infuriating than any point in the entire process. However, I have yet to find a greater sense of relief than the moment I had the print-ready PDF. I was so excited yet overwhelmingly drained by the entire process that I wanted nothing more than to step away from my computer and not think about any part of the process for as long as I could, perhaps spoil myself by splurging on a fancy meal, taking a few days off and traveling to the most remote luxury resort I could afford, and just soaking in the natural “high” I felt after completing one of the greatest accomplishments of my life.

No more than 45 minutes and a mostly untouched pizza later, I was back at work. Now I was looking at creating an e-book, and working on the printing process, and researching publishing houses, and learning how to self-publish, and watching videos on how Amazon works with independent authors, and learning that there are more options than just Amazon…and it went on from there. I have since discovered that the publishing process does not necessarily stop; it may slow down at some points – for example, after the conclusion of the printing process – but once one aspect is done, there remains so much more to do.  No part of the process is simple, other than perhaps the decision you have to make in order to do it.

Using that same Rocky reference, “it ain’t about how hard you hit, but about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take, and keep moving forward”. It makes far more sense after you have been hit and have gotten back up, time and again. It becomes a part of who you are as a person, and it ultimately is reflected in your story. I did not have the funds available to outsource almost any aspect of the process other than the printing of the book (which is far better than anything I can make with a home printer) the cover art (which is far better than my stick-figure artistic talents enable me to do), and the translation of the Spanish edition (which is likely going to be the aspect of the project for which I am most grateful). After that, the publishing process is only as effective as the amount of time, funds, and effort that I invest into it. I do have the ability to pull the plug at any point, and perhaps cut my losses and be content with what I was able to accomplish. However, I have never been more confident or passionate about any self-driven initiative as I have about this story, and so I will exhaust myself and every possible resource I can discover in order to achieve the standard of success I wish to attain.

Rejection hurts, at any level. Bad reviews sting. I can’t count the number of people who have told me, “you know what you should have done…?” or who have supplied me with criticisms that are more about me than they are about the book. I have discovered errors in the copies that were printed, even after checking, and checking, and rechecking, and rechecking again. I have given books to those who are closest to me, and with one hand I can count those among them who have actually read it. But there are those who see the work and believe in what it represents. I have gained fans and a following, though I have worked hard for each and every ‘like’ and ‘follow’ on social media. I have had excellent reviews, have been welcomed in schools, have presented at an international book festival, and have even had the honor to be asked to participate in blog posts, Q & A sessions, library presentations, and so much more. To me, this is entirely the publishing process, and it is everything I was told that it would be: as frustrating as it is invigorating, as rewarding as it is belittling, and unlike any other self-driven challenge I have ever experienced.

Talk about Latinx representation in young adult literature. What would you like to see more of?

In terms of Latinx representation, I believe that it would be best to have a greater selection of Latinx authors. There are so many great stories to tell, and so many incredibly talented authors who are out there wishing that someone, anyone, would read and appreciate their work. I also see that there are a number of writers who have some of the most creative, imaginative minds the world of literature has ever known, but their stories are oftentimes hidden under or ignored entirely because they do not fit a pre-determined mold. There are so many excellent and compelling immigrant stories, but there is more to being Latinx than just that. There are profound, life-changing stories about our struggles (in the United States and around the world), but there is more to being Latinx than just that. Our ancestors were some of the most innovative and imaginative dreamers to have ever lived, and our archetypes should reflect our current dreams and passions. I believe that being a Latinx author (or writer, or filmmaker, or banker, or marketer, or photographer, or President) should not confine us to a box of pre-determined, sellable stories from which we are to choose, but rather that it enables us to share our culture, our dreams, our hopes, and our passions with the rest of the world. I applaud those who have achieved their goals and successes by carving their own path and following the road less travelled. I respect and admire the storytellers who stepped far from their comfort zones and created a vision of their world that we, as readers, are fortunate enough to witness. And I hope that I, too, can discover my audience among readers who enjoy and appreciate my work, where everything that I am – my culture, my roots, my joys, my pains, my achievements, my failures, and my beliefs – are deeply embedded in every chapter.What do you enjoy the most about the writing process? What do you enjoy the least?

I enjoy the blank page. I also loathe the emptiness of the untouched canvass, where sometimes the dread of the blinking curser is the only thing reminding me that I have not lost my mind. Perhaps that was a little exaggerated. Please allow me to explain.

By a substantial margin, the absolute most difficult part of the entire writing process is getting started. The first step is getting over the sense of fear, followed immediately by fear’s cousin, doubt. Then there is the questioning and requestioning of your intentions, and the seemingly endless purgatory of story development. And you might put it on paper and realize how ridiculous it all is, then scrap the entire thing and binge-watch a series on Disney+ or something. But at some point you come back to it, and then the magic starts happening.

I began the writing process concurrently with training for a marathon. Now, pushing yourself to your absolute maximum physical limits enables you to gain a new perspective on yourself, which opens your mind in many ways. For me, it was the way in which I was able to get through a tunnel of darkness I can only describe as an abyss of pain and loneliness. However, when you reach a certain goal that you create for yourself, you begin to lose your fear. When you reach a certain point, you discover that the pain is less and less with each passing day, and you feel that you can run towards that sunset you’re so vehemently chasing. That runner’s “high” for me was never a state of euphoria, but rather a statement of my self-accomplishment. If I can run x length, I can push myself to do more, but you have to get “in the zone”. The writing process, in turn, has the exact same process.

Words cannot fully describe the sense of joy that exists in creating something from absolutely nothing but an idea. One word at a time, one sentence at a time, one paragraph at a time, one chapter at a time, one act at a time, one book at a time. Writing The Blue Q was one of the most profound, deeply personal and overwhelmingly altering experiences of my life. And I fell in love with the entirety of it all. I cried at certain points, more so as I read the drama I was trying to convey during certain scenes that were not as powerful when I thought of them earlier that day. I laughed hysterically, mostly at the dialogue that developed between some of these characters and as my mind provided each of them with distinct voices. I felt the rush of finishing a chapter as much as I felt the intensity and the madness that my mind creates when I actually want the light to turn red so I can safely stop and write down an idea that suddenly came to me which I refused to lose. I danced solo in an large, empty room, trying to explain to myself how I did it so I can describe the movements of some of the characters. I researched voices, dialogues, forms of speech, terms said by people in various countries, birds of all kinds, a number of countries and local customs, and so much more…and I found every moment of it to be fascinating. It was just as rewarding as crossing mile 26.2 on my own two, worn-out-yet-still-standing legs; as meaningful as each word of the vows I said to the best friend who is now my wife; and as emotionally overwhelming as the contrast that exists between pure darkness and glorious light.

But with all that being said, there is a process to it all that must not be ignored. It was difficult to have so many sleepless nights, wondering where the next chapter would go. It is not easy to work 45+ hours per week, feel tired, try to eat healthy, stay in shape, and be focused enough to write. I chose to write over watching movies or television, or staying connected with friends, or going out and meeting new people, or checking out a restaurant I was told about, or socializing in almost any way, or do anything that might distract me from my goal. The first phase of the process lasted nine months, and I can honestly say that I do not regret any of it. I actually look forward to doing it all over again.

What I enjoy the most of the storytelling process is the infinite amount of possibilities found in the blank canvas, where I choose the direction that I want to go, tap into my deepest roots and the core of my being, and produce the story that I both wish to write and wish to read. What I do not enjoy in the slightest is the inner voice that continues to tell me that it is not good enough, that it will never be good enough, and that no one will ever read nor benefit from a story about a blue bird. I silenced that voice once, as I held copy number one of The Blue Q in my hand for the very first time. I am going to stop short of describing that feeling, for I hope that everyone has a chance to experience that moment in their lives, and then may perhaps understand why the dreamers of the world so vehemently and relentlessly pursue their passions.

What advice would you give to other young people of color who are interested in writing/publishing but may not know where to start?

Tell YOUR story. Tell the story you want to tell, not the story you want to sell. I know, I know…that second one makes little sense, but hear me out.

It’s your story, plain and simple. No one in this universe will ever see everything from your perspective, but you can explain the map of your mind and allow them to draw their own conclusions. You may win (people buy your book, good reviews, etc.), or you may lose (you give your book away and still no one reads it, your book is not selected as a winner, bad reviews, etc.), but more than anything, you will discover something within yourself that you never even knew existed. That is why you write. You write the story you are proud to read, proud to put your name on, and one that you hope your mom will read and tell all her friends about.

And start now. There is no reason to wait until tomorrow, because tomorrow easily becomes next week, then becomes next month, then next year, and before you realize it a decade has gone by and you are no further along than where you began. The uphill battle upon which you will embark is by no means a simple one. Most people will not make it half as far as where you think you may be going. There is no clear path to success, and even if it did exist, it likely would not provide the sense of achievement you get when you lift a copy of your book above your head and tell the universe that it was all worth it.

The color of your skin is not a limiting factor, and you yourself are not a genre. Remember that. Yes, you will take it personally. Yes, others will tell you what they think you should be doing, some may even get offended when you kindly reject their ideas. Yes, it will hurt when a celebrity or politician releases a book and instantly becomes a bestseller when months go by and not a soul has heard of you, your book, or is even willing to entertain the notion of your story. Nevertheless, I implore you to look beyond your fear and self-doubt. Dig deep and find your characters, find their stories, and push yourself to be the great author you know you were always meant to become. Your mind will automatically find excuses to block you from going any further, especially when it gets tough, but your heart will be there to get you back on track.

And despite the stress, despite the overwhelming weight of the world, despite the belittling voices meant to distract you or disarm any advancement you make, and despite anything you may feel you lack, just have fun with it. Do you have any idea how exhilarating and fun it is to run 26.2 miles in one day? It’s tough, almost unbearably so. But the big event was only one day. It took nearly 400 days of training to get that point, so I learned to enjoy and embrace the training . The same goes for writing; enjoy the process, enjoy what you are doing (typos and all), and enjoy the canvass that your mind is painting.

I am no one to tell you what to do or how to be doing it. I am not here to judge you, your idea, your story, or the process by which you will make it happen. But I can be the one to encourage you to go get a pen, find a piece of paper, and think of your idea. I can be the one to encourage you to open your laptop and finally – after overcoming every obstacle, after failing and trying again, after being knocked down and getting back up – move that blinking curser from one side of the screen to the other, and do not stop until you know you made it.

Dennis Avelar’s novel The Blue Q is available for purchase in both English and Spanish. For more information on Dennis and his work, access the links below:

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