Brian Young is a graduate of Yale University and Columbia University. He is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation. He enjoys reading, watching movies, playing video games (when he has time), and keeping physically active.
What brought you to writing? When I first wrote The Healer of the Water Monster, I lived in Albuquerque and worked as a meat cutter, and contributed to the native film community as a screenwriter and director. I first envisioned Healer as a movie, possibly a trilogy of feature films. But when I sat down to write it, I knew that a film interpretation wasn’t feasible. The scope and size of Healer’s story was growing in ways that would require an extensive budget to successfully depict. At that time, no one was willing to financially produce native stories because of the prejudiced idea that “Native stories don’t sell.” So, I made the decision to write Healer first as a book because those limitations that filmmaking imposed don’t exist with prose writing. It also helps that I love writing.
How long did it take you to write your first book? Such a long time! Six or seven years? The first draft took me like two months because I was really motivated and in love with the story. I already had daydreamed about the plot points and character growth paths. I did revisions to it for three years. But I was using techniques from screenwriting. I’d have huge paragraphs at the beginning of chapters and scenes going into great detail of the land and environment, then like five pages of nothing but dialogue. I had to grow as a storyteller, definitely as a prose writer. That’s why I decided that getting an MFA was going to help me get Healer published. I was super fortunate but also did a tremendous amount of work to get into Columbia’s MFA for Creative Writing. Through that program, I learned the tools, techniques, and unique abilities that prose writing has.
How long to get it published? I hear this process can take a long time. But for me, it was very short. To complete my MFA program, I did a ground-up revision of Healer for my thesis. I took a third year to rewrite every single sentence of my manuscript. Columbia University’s School of the Arts hosts an agent mixer for third-year writing students and alumni. It was there that I met my agent. I pitched Healer to him, and he wanted to read my manuscript. I wasn’t fully finished with my revision, and he agreed to wait.
A month later, I had finished the revision and sent it to him. When he offered me his representation, I cried. I literally spent ten minutes in my room praying and saying thank you to the Navajo Holy Beings. After accepting his offer through an email, he wanted to go right into sending it out to publishers and editors. After another revision I felt was needed, my agent and I sent Healer out to publishing houses and editors. The rejections came first, as they usually do. But then, we got some interest. My agent set up some meetings, and I had the massive fortune to meet with Rosemary Brosnan, who was gearing up to launch Heartdrum, a native-focused imprint of HarperCollins. I had some immediate gut vibes that told me Rosemary was the one who was going to help bring Nathan’s story across the finish line. After we met, Rosemary offered a pre-empt and my agent worked his magic. By the end, I had a signed two-book deal! It was finalized the day I picked up my mom and sister from LaGuardia for my graduation from Columbia. I had experienced so many setbacks and heartbreaks before. But all that hardship was worth it when I showed my mom my contract. All in all, it took four months, getting an agent then a book deal. After that, Rosemary and I did another revision (I’ve lost count of how many revisions I did), and that is the version that went to print.
We hear of strong-willed characters. Do yours behave, or do they run the show? In my opinion, if your protagonist isn’t making decisions that shape the environment, world, people around them, then why are they the protagonist? Nathan, the protagonist of The Healer of the Water Monster, definitely runs the show. Both he and I agreed that his actions would have consequences for the worlds around him. There are very precious few stories that depict native children as heroes whose actions shape the world around them. So, throughout all the revisions and from the very start, both Nathan and I wanted him to be as active as he could possibly be. I speak of him as an actual person because I spent seven years with him! Actually more, because he is in my next book!
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? On that spectrum, I am more of an outliner. I love seeing the story in its entirety. It’s actually my favorite part of the writing process. I love looking at the macro-level of the story and tinkering with plot points and action beats. When writing a new story, I’ll often do a 27 chapter outline and write a paragraph describing what happens in each chapter and break it down further into scene outlines for each chapter.
That being said, my initial 27 chapter outline usually becomes useless because at the halfway point in the actual writing of the story is when I’ll diverge from the outline. Or I’ll discover some story bits or character emotions that I overlooked when writing the whole story. It’s also here in the middle of the story that the characters start to do their own actions and say their own words. When I’m in the zone, I don’t know what the characters are going to do. It’s like I’m reading a new book that is being written right in front of my eyes.
So, I like to start with having an outline down but will concede to the characters when they start to fully come into their own.
Do you have any advice for new writers? My biggest advice is “Write what you love.” I can’t stress enough that this is a long journey that you are on. From inception to publication, it took me seven years to turn The Healer of the Water Monsterinto a book. You, new writers, are going to be with the story that you are writing for a very long time. If I didn’t love the story or characters, I’m not sure if I would have been as committed to its publication, nor am I sure if I would have been able to devote seven years of my life to Healer. If you love your story, the sacrifices and effort needed to publish a book will be worth it.
People can buy The Healer of the Water Monster on Amazon, but I recommend Red Planet Comics and Books (native owned and operated in Albuquerque, NM)