The L-Suite examines the diverse ways in which Latine professionals have built their careers, how they’ve navigated notoriously disruptive roadblocks, and how they’re attempting to dismantle these obstacles for the rest of their communities. This month, we chat with "Lightlark" author Alex Aster about rejection, social media, and landing a major movie deal.
To the unknowing eye, it may seem like Alex Aster’s success came from one viral video. In March 2021, the Colombian-American author posted a TikTok video about her upcoming novel "Lightlark," the story of an island that appears once every 100 years to host a game where six rulers fight to break deadly curses. The clip amassed more than 365 thousand likes, placed "Lightlark" in front of influential publishing executives, and helped it reach Barnes & Noble’s bestsellers list even before its release. Behind the scenes, Aster had spent 15 years laying the framework for that moment.
“I started writing when I was 12 years old. I obviously wasn’t writing books that would be published, but I really thought that I could be published,” Aster, now 27, tells Refinery29 Somos. “I think I wrote six books before my first book deal, which was not 'Lightlark.' It was 'Emblem Island,' a middle-grade series inspired by my Colombian heritage.”
Despite the three-book series being acquired by a publisher, "Emblem Island" didn’t receive the attention Aster hoped for. “[The series] came out during the pandemic, and it was a really small book deal. I thought, ‘That was it, I can write whatever I want and I’ll always get a book deal,’ and that’s just not true,” she explains.
With "Lightlark," Aster has finally received the recognition she deserves. The book came out on August 23 — the same day, it became Amazon’s No. 1 new release in the Young Adult Fantasy Romance category. Before it was released to the public, Aster secured a Universal movie deal with the producers of "Twilight," where she’ll serve as an executive producer on a film adaptation of the book.
Considering the scale of her accomplishments, it’s easy to forget Aster is still a human with insecurities. To this day, she actively combats imposter syndrome, which she’s battled throughout her career. “I feel like the main source of imposter syndrome is that we don’t allow ourselves to realize how hard the things we did were,” she says. “We’re so focused on getting the next thing that we don’t sit and think, ‘Wow, look what had to happen for me to get here.’”
Below, Aster discusses how she turned her dream of becoming a globally-recognized novelist into reality.
Rejection is part of the process
Anyone who has found success in their field knows it isn’t a linear journey. Most milestones worth reaching present obstacles along the way, and for Aster, they came in the form of rejection. “Between 12 and college, I wrote six books, and they got hundreds of rejections each,” she recalls. “The day I graduated from college was the first time I ever got an offer for representation from agents. I thought, ‘My life is set.’ Then we went on submission with that book, and it didn’t sell.”
The book in question was an adult thriller. After reading it, several editors told Aster her writing felt “too young” for her 27-year-old protagonist to come off as believable. And though she published the "Emblem Island" novel in 2020, Aster reiterates that it was a “very, very small book deal.” By the time she started writing "Lightlark," she was no longer represented by an agent, and the feedback she had received on the book wasn’t promising.
“All I was hearing were 'no’s,' almost every single publisher saying, ‘We don’t think there’s a market for this,’” Aster says. “I posted the video to TikTok because I wanted to know that someone other than me wanted to read a story like this. I think it was my last plea to the Internet: Would you read this?”
Once her video gained traction, publishing houses clamored to get "Lightlark" on their roster, which Aster attributes not only to its virality, but to lessons learned through countless failures. “I’ve definitely been outspoken about the amazing things that have happened to me, but I’ve always tried to temper that with letting people know how many rejections [I’ve received] and how many years I’ve done this,” she explains. “Out-of-context successes are meaningless, and they paint a false picture. Anyone who’s ever done anything I’ve admired has failed for a very long time.”
Teamwork makes the dream work
Publishing a book is one thing; having it turned into a movie is another. Aster’s hopes for a film adaptation arose when former agents agreed to come onboard. “I’d had film agents for 'Emblem Island,'” she says. “So when 'Lightlark' was acquired [for publishing], I sent it to them and said, ‘Do you also want to represent this?’ They read it, loved it, and said yes.”
Calls from Hollywood execs didn’t roll in overnight. After that initial conversation with her film agents, Aster revised "Lightlark" for almost a year before she felt ready to send it to production companies. Her waiting game paid off. “A few months ago, I got an email that someone from the production company that did 'Twilight' and 'Love, Simon' was asking for the book,” she says. “I don’t even think my agents told me that they sent it.”
Aster and her agents teamed up with the production company to pitch "Lightlark" to film studios. Weeks later, one email turned her world on its head. “It said, ‘Universal Studios loves 'Lightlark' and they want to make it into a movie,’” she says. During the negotiations that followed, her agents and lawyer helped her land a role as executive producer.
“The thing I’ve learned doing this in the last few years is that my team is the most important part,” Aster says. “They were the ones negotiating this. They were the ones who knew what to ask for and when, who knew to push the deal and do everything that they did. I’ve been in situations where I felt like former agents did not think I was a good writer. Everything I would ask felt like I was asking too much. To have a team now that thinks the world of me and are my biggest fans, to have them negotiating all this and getting things that I never thought I could, it really shows the value of a team.”
Write first, social media second
Before "Lightlark," Aster had never used an outline to guide her writing. “I’d end up wasting a lot of time because I’d write in a different direction and realize, instead of that direction, I should’ve moved in this direction,” she explains.
When she decided to start her latest novel, she knew her writing process could benefit from a different strategy. “'Lightlark' was the first time I ever used an outline because the plot is pretty complicated. You have to know what the characters actually want, what people think they want, what they’re portraying to everyone else, what the truth is,” she says, adding that the story’s many plot twists required an outline “to really see from a bird’s eye view how everything would work.”
"Lightlark" also showed Aster the power of proofreading. Now, she advises other authors to spend as much time editing their work as they do writing it. “I think one of my biggest mistakes in the past was that I’d be so excited about the opportunity to be published, I would just write,” she says. “As soon as I’d be done, I would send it off and obviously I would get rejections.”
Social media has played a crucial role in her career, but Aster prioritizes the quality of her work over any form of marketing. “I got extremely lucky that I went viral,” she reflects. “Social media is so finicky, and you never know what is going to work and what’s not. I wouldn’t discourage people from trying it, but if you think social media is automatically going to lead to these things you want, you have to have the writing, too. Ultimately, everything I’ve done — the social media and stuff — would be for nothing if the book actually wasn’t good.”