This post is not medical or legal advice, but: burn romaine. It is the Devil’s plant and shows up nearly every year in E. coli outbreaks in the States. Just. Burn. It! /PSA done
I’ve wanted to be a writer since middle school, but when your parents are refugees, you might get it in your head that you need a stable career. I kept writing for fun in fandom spaces but never allowed myself to dream for more. For a long time, I couldn’t even read anymore—it filled me with so much jealousy and sadness over my own situation.
CW: cancer, death, COVID. Skip the next paragraph if needed!
At 22, I became a cancer survivor. And to keep myself safe, I knew my mom was right. I needed a practical career with health insurance. I made myself as small as possible. I went back for my Master’s and was the breadwinner for my household as I worked in different data analyst positions in NYC and helped my partner through school. With no intention of publishing, I worked on craft anyway and wrote on the side. Five years passed, then my brother got cancer. It was the worst six months; I’ll say no more than that. The summer after he died, I was sitting in Bryant Park at a free Gotham Writers’ Workshop event, watching sunlight slanting through the trees. I started writing a strange dark fantasy about grief.
I wanted to try for a dream for once, and for myself. This was 2017. I started consuming books again, and it was magical. I didn’t touch my own story again until May 2020, when the world was shutting down and I’d saved enough money to give myself a chance for one year. If nothing happened beyond the year, I would still write but I’d do part-time work. I spent months writing and rewriting my opening chapters, plotting, and doing all kinds of character work, and it still ended up stalled at ~25k. I was SO down on myself. I completely burned out on this story I freaking loved but just didn’t have the capacity to get out.
With October looming, I rewatched a comfort show, The Haunting of Hill House, and realized that despite being obsessed with horror shows/movies/books, I never thought to write horror??? Like I was that 10 year old watching Nightmare on Elm Street instead of trick or treating. My mom actually told me later that while pregnant with me, she started wanting to watch all these horror movies, even though she did not understand English at the time, so I guess I’ve always been drawn to scary stories 😂
I asked myself, “What are you most afraid of?” and the story poured (…slowly) from me–the fears around not belonging, not being accepted, performing femininity. I tried not to overthink it as I’d done for the dark fantasy. I had a very basic outline with a few beats to hit, the ending in mind, and like 20 years of vivid dreaming to mine.
As an underwriter, the process was painful. Most days I wrote less than 200 words but by December I had a “draft” with sizeable plot holes. I powered through, taking every single shot I could: alpha reading with a friend, applying to workshops, entering critique giveaways. The folks at Rainbow Weekend and my friend Lindsay gave me hope that this story was worth telling. (CW again:) By the end of that month, my grandma died from COVID. I was/am so, so, so tired of death. At the time, I needed an escape, something I did just for me. For two weeks, I wrote about family legacy and history, drawing from everything I’ll never get to ask her.
I applied to Author Mentor Match in January, certain I wouldn’t get it but needing the validation of a SUBMITTED thing. Imagine my surprise when Alex Brown picked me as her mentee!!!! Her belief in me and this story gave me so much confidence to keep working. And to also make my story make more sense. The best thing I continued to do was keep eyes on my own work. Revise, revise, whine, revise. Not only was I adding a lot of words, I also rewrote so much because of the way I just love everything down to the line level. I am a slow writer because I have to be excited about commas. COMMAS!
An Underwriter’s Journey Through Drafting/Revision:
Zero draft: 40k
First draft (subbed to AMM): 55k
At the time, you could’ve asked me where a specific line was and I could direct you. Don’t ask me now though bc this brain is empty!!! My new goal was to be ready to pitch in the first LGBTNPit in April. Not every book is easy to pitch in tweet-form, so it’s hit or miss but I always loved the energy people had in these contests and wanted to try.
Over the two months, I gathered as much intel as I could: Querytracker, Publisher’s Marketplace, past interviews, MSWL, etc. I curated a list of agents who repped YA horror and Adult with info on their tastes and sales. I was prepared to query, even if LGBTNPit didn’t go well. At 9AM on April 15th, I threw my first pitch into the world!
My soul left my body several times that day as people said kind things, retweeted, and liked. It was surreal. Something about the pitch resonated with folks. It ended up being one of the most popular horror pitches that day, with 40 agent likes and attention from 10+ editors. I was floored. Toward the end of the night, I got two likes from Katelyn Detweiler at Jill Grinberg Literary Management. I screamed. Katelyn was at the top of my to-query list and spoiler: she’s my agent!!!!
I had this idyllic image of me querying in small batches so if my query or sample pages failed to attract interest, I’d be able to revise. What actually happened?
I sent 24 queries. I had NO chill. None. Zero. Don’t be like me, I beg. I was very lucky that the timing was right. I got several full requests that same day—mostly from agents who had liked my pitch, and two days later, an email to set up a call. I couldn’t believe it and when we talked that Friday, I was ecstatic because I felt they really GOT my book and what I wanted to do. It was an offer I would’ve happily accepted, so that meant I was confident in notifying everyone who had my work, knowing that it may trigger passes due to time or just no interest, because I already knew that I liked this agent.
One such pass came with some brutal feedback that was at odds with what other agents were telling me (which again shows the subjective nature of this work). I had a few other really amazing calls with agents who were so savvy on where to place my book in the market and how to approach my career. There was one call that left me uncertain—because they had to take it while outside and I couldn’t hear very well but didn’t want to be a problem. (Note: YOU ARE NEVER A PROBLEM! You are essentially interviewing potential business partners!!) I kept thinking about Katelyn’s email that came on Tuesday with the words “I’m… totally speechless. Wow.” and then our call that made my heart soar. I’d planned to relax the weekend before my deadline and review all the conversations.
But the salad from lunch had its own agenda.~~
I started throwing up at 7PM and by 10, I could no longer keep sips of water down. I started shaking uncontrollably and my whole body went cold. Ya’ll, the paramedics spent 20 minutes in the driveway trying to get my blood pressure up as I was slipping in and out of consciousness. I had to get a CT scan at the hospital because they thought I was bleeding internally. (I was not. I was just severely dehydrated. And now very sad about the 4K that cost..) While I was connected to an IV, I got another email to set up a call for Monday. LOL.
Remember how I said there was one call in which I had a hard time hearing the whole conversation but was too afraid to be a problem and didn’t say so? Turns out we really didn’t vibe at all. Since I had other offers, they felt they wouldn’t be the most passionate advocate for this book and officially withdrew their offer on Sunday. The email was nice, but it was ROUGH regardless, and I cried for the first time during this whole thing, absolutely crushed. If it had been a rejection from the start, it would’ve hurt less–it was that I was so close (and ill lol), and I felt like I fucked it up.
Still, it was a good thing: you and your career deserve someone who believes in you!
So I chugged Gatorade, ate crackers, and prepared for my last two calls on the last day of my offer window. Monday morning, I talked to two amazing agents who represented books and authors I admire. It was an agonizing decision, but I considered the most important things to me, which was ‘did their vision and understanding of the story matched mine’ and whether I felt confident in them being able to sell the book. I really enjoyed conversations with several agents, but many times, their ideas for revision didn’t resonate with me because it would change the focus/feel of the book.
Consistently over the two weeks, one person followed up and sometimes summarized my book in DIFFERENT ways that made me go “wait I wanna buy, wait I wrote that!?!!?”. They made me feel safe in trusting them. I signed with Katelyn, and it’s been one of the best decisions I made this year.
Queries sent: 24 (12 #LGBTNPit, 2 requested after workshop/query giveaway, 10 cold queries)
No response: 1
Step Aside: 1
Partials: 2 (1 became a full)
Offers: 8 (not including the oopsy)
Overall, this has been a very fulfilling professional year but honestly one of the hardest personal ones. You don’t need to write every day or even a lot to be a writer. If you’re out there working a job you don’t like because you NEED it to survive, that is valid: you are creating the space for you to thrive as a person. That, for me, has always been the precursor to a creative career.