Like many writers, I first put pen to page for the purpose of storytelling when I was a kid. My earliest recollection is age nine: We were given AlphaSmarts in class and had an assignment for a short story. I wrote about a girl (possibly princess) named Golden who was rescued (probably from the evil Spencerasaurus) by a prince named James and his magic guitar (who probably put the Spencerasaurus to sleep). This might have been handwritten. I just remember the AlphaSmart because my brother had one.
Of course, I understand now that I've always been a writer, that the way I think about the world is through language, and words and their power are at the crux of who I am as a person. But for many years, I think I forgot this truth, thought it wasn't as important to me as it is. I spent four years in undergrad hardly writing at all. As my mental and physical health deteriorated, for the first time in my life, I didn't turn to the written word. I was empty, silenced by the person I was becoming, losing track of the one I truly was.
The story of Golden stayed with me for many years; so many, in fact, that I finally put her away last year, after writing a 115k manuscript that, as one might imagine, had been greatly altered from its original form. It took a lot for me to put Golden's—now Gilead's—story away, to finally shut out the myth of the Parian from my mind. It'll stay with me forever; there is too much of who I am rooted in that story. (I even still have the leather-bound journal that my father gave me as a gift when I was around ten, which became the inspiration for the magical book FLORENTIA that Golden finds. It's still unwritten in, because I always planned to write out Golden's story in its final form.)
I look back on this story with so much fondness. It was really hard for me to put it in the drawer when I finished it last April (wow! a year ago, LORD)—I was convinced that I could fix all the problems inherent with carrying a story for 16 years. I think I finally accepted it when I started to really focus on another WIP, and then when I drafted FEATHER AND EARTH. And even though it felt, at first, like I had wasted 115,000 words, I realized I hadn't. Reading LOVE, HATE, AND OTHER FILTERS by Samira Ahmed made me realize that the co-narrator of the manuscript I'd written needed his own book, set in modern day Earth, where he could shine. Drafting my "Academy" manuscript made me realize that Golden/Gilead and her mentor, Aazar, could have a place in that world, albeit in a different book. And I learned so much while writing it: about cultural appropriation, about what is and isn't in my lane, about researching and respecting cultures outside my own. It was a lesson in humility, and it was a lesson in how to write well. Ultimately, Golden/Gilead's story was written well enough, but not well. And that, too, was deeply important for me to learn.
I like to say that I cannot write a short story to save my life. It's true. I used to write short stories in high school—I'm talking outside of the thousands of words of fanfiction I wrote—but I haven't written a short story that hasn't turned into a novel in over five years. In my last quarter of undergrad, I was in two creative writing workshops. I used the same short stories for both—one of which I'd written and revised almost a year before—because I was busy working on a new novel. More on that in a minute; let me dwell on short stories. I bring it up because the novel I began after I finally closed the chapter on Golden's grew out of a short story I wrote in undergrad that I then revised to submit to a writing workshop. And then realized, about 7,000 words in, needed more room than it was getting. I've determined to use my MFA to crack the short story, figure out how to write it, so we'll see about that. (Meanwhile, the short-story-turned-novel has a Draft 0. It should have been a Draft 1, but I rushed through the ending. It is SO ROUGH. Lord. But I'm also proud of it, and can't wait to get it into shape.)
If you could the early drafts of Golden's story as one novel, and its sequel (despite also being under that 50k mark) another, then the one I'd begun in my last year in college was my fourth. (The third was a book I wrote the summer before I started college. I did some revisions with it during my first year, maybe even some in my second, and at some point, put it away.)
NEVERLAND'S CHILDREN was not a bad book, but it was flawed in many ways. I revised it, began to query it. By then, I'd discovered the mysterious "literary agent" that was necessary for me to publish traditionally. (If I'd recognized this sooner, you bet I would have been querying since high school.) And I wanted to prove to myself that I could be published traditionally, because in my mind, I was worthless as a writer if I couldn't. (Now, years later, I find this idea so remarkably flawed and untrue that it makes me sad.)
The other is, frankly, because publishing is willing to take chances on white writers that it won't on people of color; it will accept straight authors over queer ones, ones who aren't disabled over ones who are. If I was a white author writing about mental illness that wasn't a personal perspective, I think I would have found an agent for this book. Some agents will pick up a deeply flawed book and work on it for years, but the writers who get those chances are very rarely writers of color. It's an ugly truth, but a truth nonetheless.
But to get formal representation, I had to put it down and move on.
The book that got me my agent is called FEATHER AND EARTH. I wrote it for NaNoWriMo last fall. I had no plan going into November; I only decided to do NaNo about a week before it started. I discovered my story as I told it (as I tend to do), posted it to my Patreon each day after I wrote it. I realized, sometime during the month, that I wasn't writing a YA fantasy like I thought; I was writing an MG. For the first time in my writing career, I let myself tell the story how I wanted to, without superimposing a character's voice onto it. (That is to say, this book was the first since the early drafts of Golden that was in third person. Yes, there is character voice in it.) I wove in stories I'd been raised on, let it take on the tone of a legend. I let the characters be brave, and scared, and queer, and nonbinary, and friends. There's no romance in FEATHER AND EARTH. I didn't write my friends into it. I didn't take parts of my own life, except in identity. I wrote the book that my ten-year-old self needed to read.
Yes, needed. Because representation deeply matters to me, and a lifetime of gender dysphoria was solved when I discovered the term nonbinary. I imagined my younger self picking up this book, seeing a Persian demigirl as the protagonist, a protagonist who loved her father and had a complicated relationship with her mother and wanted desperately to be the child her father wanted. I created a world where a thirteen-year-old could face the archdemon of evil with her head held high, where she was stronger than her male friends, where she could have a life worth living simply by doing what felt right.
But I didn't plan to query it, not yet. I planned to do one final revision of NEVERLAND'S CHILDREN, one last attempt. Then, as I sat in my parents' house in December, grieving the death of a friend, I told myself it was enough. I told myself I had to shift focus. I decided to put away NEVERLAND'S CHILDREN and work on FEATHER AND EARTH instead. Things were going to change in 2018, I decided.
Here's what happened: in December, I decided, on a half-whim, to get a Passion Planner on the recommendation of a friend. On January 1st, I sat on my bed, opened it up, and followed the exercises of goal setting. I wrote out my wildest fantasies for three months, one year, three years, my lifetime. I decided which goal under each timeframe would make my life more meaningful. Then, I made a plan for my three-month goal. By April 1, I wanted an agent.
I went from trickles of interest but ultimately passes on NEVERLAND'S CHILDREN to a total of five offers on FEATHER AND EARTH. Several people passed because they didn't have time to finish it after I received my first offer; others passed because they didn't have a strong enough editorial vision for it. I queried 35 people and sent out 27 full manuscripts. For NEVERLAND'S CHILDREN, I queried 65 people (I need to double-check this number, since it sure felt like more) over five years and sent out nine full manuscripts. The difference in my experience querying the two is staggering and also deeply humbling. I'm grateful for my past experiences, because they help me cherish my current success.
I reached my goal. I didn't sign with my agent on April 1, but I had multiple offers. On the books, I became officially represented by Erica Bauman on April 5. I couldn't be more excited.
In order to be successful when you query—especially if you're a person of color—you need to query the right book. That's what all of this has taught me. You might have written The Next Man Booker Prize Or Pulitzer Or Something, but you still might not find an agent. FEATHER AND EARTH caught people's eye because it was the right story at the right time. It's not as ambitious as the other books I've written, and it might not be as lyrical or as exciting, but it's what caught Erica's interest.
Look, I am not an amazing writer. I love writing, but I have to work hard at it, especially my fiction; it does not come naturally to me. I've written awful stories and awful novels and even worse fanfiction, but all of it came together to create a product that someone thought was marketable.
Getting an agent is not a reflection of your quality as a writer; I understand that in a way that I couldn't have before. It's in seeing my unagented writer friends struggle to find representation, writers who are brilliant and powerful and whose stories leave me breathless. It's in seeing trash books like FIFTY SHADES OF GREY getting published that reminds me that the gatekeepers aren't necessarily looking for beautiful writing; they're looking for what sells, maybe. It's in learning about how the whiteness, the straightness, the cisness, the allosexual-ness of publishing has created a barrier to marginalized populations.
I'm hopeful that things are improving. I think someone taking a chance on me—queer, trans, Persian me, who unapologetically writes stories centering that—shows that. And I'm hopeful that someone will read that it took me five and a half books and five years of failed querying to find someone to represent me and not lose hope.
Your words matter; don't ever doubt that. You'll find a way to get them out there, whether that's through traditional publishing or indie publishing or self-publishing. Your reader is waiting for you; you just have to find them.