First, tell us about your novel. What is the story and what inspired you to tell it?
A Dance of Djinn (working title) is the story of Fern and Dahlia, two circus performers who grew up in the traveling Circus of Reveries. Dahlia is a bookish, anxious witch with PTSD from her mother’s death, and Fern is a charismatic yet nerdy Latinx guy who sees the memories of the dead when he touches bones. Intent on chasing down answers and sorting through past trauma, they’re separated across continents. But behind the scenes, a goddess and a djinn-king are battling for control of their lives.
This story is sort of the “book of my heart.” I’ve spent the last 10 years looking for a circus novel as compelling for me as The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and I have always had a deep soft spot for djinn. Not like magic lamp genies but the kind based in Islamic scripture and lore, Creatures of sand and smokeless fire. I am also tired of narrative story arcs about two characters falling in love—so I set out to write a book where they were already in love, because what happens after that is so much more complicated, the feelings so much more intense, and the repercussions life-changing.
How long did it take you to finish your novel? What was your writing schedule like? How did you balance work, family, and writing?
I started this novel in July 2021 and finished my first draft in February 2022. About two-thirds of this novel was drafted while I was in craft classes, so I would write a new batch each week to submit, revising it about twice before sending it out for workshop.
I began the novel in Valerie Lute’s Writing the Strange class (from a character writing exercise), then took Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop taught by Michael McComas and continued writing. After that, I was lucky to be invited to a permanent writer’s workshop and continued to get feedback. I did a lot of my drafting in the evenings after my kids went to bed.
I subscribe to VE Schwab’s opinion that thinking about your novel is still writing. I spent a lot of time thinking about this book while cooking, driving, cleaning, and showering. My husband came to recognize the look on my face when I was no longer in this world but in the world of my book. He got used to me jumping out of the shower and yelling, “No one talk to me until I write this down!”
After more than a year of writing regularly (I’m drafting my third book now), I’ve come to realize that I write best during certain times of day. I usually try to get in about 30 minutes minimum. I don’t do a word count goal, but a lot of times I’ll have a particular scene I want to get through, and I try to sit down with enough time to knock that out, even if it’s bare bones.
How many drafts did you write? Did you revise as you go or complete a draft at a time, or some mix of both?
I am what I like to call a “chaotic neutral plantser” which means that I plan (vaguely) about a third of my book, and then once I know the characters and the world, I let them tell me the story. That’s my favorite part of writing– sitting down for a scene and having it go sideways because the characters are being true to themselves, and not what I want for them.
For this book, which was my first, I did a lot of revision as I went. I read back through, perfected sentences, emotion, pacing, etc. before moving on to the next scene. So that left me with a pretty draft when I finished. I read through it a few times, making small edits before querying. However…
In May 2022, I attended the Muse and the Marketplace writer’s conference, which was amazing. I attended a lot of sessions on finding an agent and querying, including First Impressions: How to Hook an Agent/Editor with Your Opening Pages with Amaryah Orenstein, the founder of Go Literary Agency. I also attended a couple of sessions that really changed things for me. The first was a session with Hank Phillippi Ryan on first pages. The second was a craft session on revision as a process by Ann Hood.
After attending those sessions, I rewrote about half of the book, expanding my second POV character and tightening the action. I realized I had written a lot of “scaffolding” that was great for understanding the characters and the setting, but not so great for moving the story along. This revised draft is the one that landed me two indie press offers and an agent.
Since it’s NanoWriMo, do you have any advice for new writers who feel overwhelmed when they sit down to write or are struggling to find the time?
I love writing prompts to get the creativity flowing if you feel out of practice going into NANO. Even setting a timer for three minutes and either picking a word and free writing or looking at a picture and describing it can loosen you up. When it comes to actually getting your story on the page, I like to remind myself that nothing is permanent until it’s published.
I recently started doing this thing where, when I am trying to bust out a scene, I’ll add something like [INSERT EMOTION HERE] or [INSERT BACKSTORY HERE] or [BETTER ANALOGY HERE]. Sometimes I don’t have the capacity to be a poetic writer or to think of someone’s history on the spot. Sometimes I just need to get out the plot beats, and the magic happens in revision. Other times I sit down to write and the words that come out are perfect, and I never end up changing them. Both methods are valid, and both methods are me. You don’t have to be perfect the first go-through. You can write “Jane was scared.” and come back later to show instead of tell.
I have a friend who is working on her next book. She has kids, a full-time job. Her goal is 300 words a day. And if she keeps it up, she’ll draft a book in under a year. Give yourself grace, and do what you can do.
I saw on Twitter that you queried this novel for 8 months and contacted 102 literary agents. What lessons did you learn from the process? Did you ever need to change your approach? Did you learn anything to impart to someone beginning the process? Were you ever tempted to give up?
There’s this intense rush you get when you finish a book. You want it out in the world immediately, and that can make you do some stupid things. I wish I had held off querying my first book. The number of agents who represent adult fantasy is so small, I really could have put my best foot forward by waiting.
One of the things I’ve learned about revision is that stepping away for weeks or months is key. When you think you’ve got it perfect, shelve it for a month or three. The things you notice when you aren’t neck-deep in your own story will help you make it better.
If I could give querying new authors tips, it’s this:
- Agents don’t know what they want half the time. They’re looking for that je ne sais quoi in a manuscript. So sometimes, even though you will perfectly match what they say they are looking for, you get a rejection. Often, it’s not you– it’s them.
- The podcast The Shit No One Tells You About Writing is invaluable for querying authors. Fantastic advice. I listened to so many episodes in the car, my kids still ask about it.
- Get free advice on your query at the subreddit R/PubTips. Take it with a grain of salt.
- Hone your “elevator pitch” to within an inch of its life, and use it to catch agent attention in your query, your twitter pitches, etc. It took me forever to figure out what that is, but if you were trying to describe a book to a friend, in relation to other things they might have seen or read, how would you do it? So for a rom-com it might be: It’s like Emma meets The Great British Baking Show, and the main character is trying to match the contestants in the tent without realizing she’s in love with the baker next to her. You kind of instantly know what you’re in for.
In terms of giving up, I did essentially shelve this project. I had one full manuscript out (with my now agent) and most agents had replied already. I had moved on to querying a second project when I decided to throw out a Twitter pitch into the world for DVPit. This got an agent manuscript request and a small press manuscript request, the small press request turned into an offer of publication, and that turned into a second small press offer of publication and my agent offer.