debut diary #1: my publishing journey
Six months till ARYA releases, so it feels like the perfect time to finally write this post! And also to restart my blogging era. I kept a Wordpress blog all of high school that absolutely no one read, but I had so much fun writing it anyways, and I guess I'm feeling nostalgic. I also think it'll be a lovely way to track the lead up to January 9. I want to savor every moment of this time! I'd love to do write-ups every month until debut day, if I can hold myself to it.
This one's especially exciting because I devoured posts like these from middle school onward, always so hungry and impatient to finally be able to write my own. Very silly in retrospect, because I was thirteen, armed with an unfinished John Green wannabe Wattpad manuscript, totally convinced it was like, the Next Great American Novel. Youthful optimism or whatever! But all this to say that publishing has been the dream (the obsession, really!) forever. It always makes me emotional to reflect on my path here. I hope doing so can be helpful to any drafting / querying writers out there. Or just satisfy any curiosity about my publishing journey. So let's begin:
the early years
I have been writing stories since early elementary school. I've always been a big bookworm, something I definitely inherited from my big sister and my Baba -- so many of my earliest memories are of the hours we spent browsing at our local public libraries (I haven't been back since childhood but the aquarium in the Cupertino Public Library will always be in my heart) and Barnes & Nobles. I spent so much of my free time absorbed in books (A to Z mysteries, Bailey School Kids, Sammy Keyes, the Gail Carson Levine literary universe, to name a few favs), and writing my own stories was the most natural next step. From sixth grade on, I was never not working on a novel-in-progress -- in-progress being the operative phrase, as I inevitably abandoned each manuscript in pursuit of a new, shinier idea.
So much of the writing I was doing through these years was imitation. I hadn't really found my voice as a writer yet; I was trying to emulate the writers I loved instead. That meant years devoted to a Gallagher Girls ripoff manuscript, for example. I am so sorry, Ally Carter.
Most of these early stories were very bad. But I was having so much fun. And I was slowly getting so much better. I loved the rush I got when a new story idea came to me, the feeling of being so fully consumed by a project. Writing was magical, transportive, intoxicating. I spent hours daydreaming about my characters, scribbling down bits of dialogue and new scene material instead of taking notes in class. I discovered I wanted to do this forever.
In eighth grade, I won a national gold medal in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards for the John Green style book I mentioned earlier. In the years that followed, I won a lot more national awards for my teenage stories, and while I have messy feelings about how contest culture ultimately affected my relationship with writing, I also know that this early recognition is what allowed me to really, truly imagine a future for myself as a writer. It's a big deal when you're young and insecure for someone Important to tell you that they see promise in your work! I started researching the publishing process in earnest. I told myself I wanted to graduate high school with a book deal.
That did not happen, needless to say. I never even finished writing a novel while I was in high school. I also just generally no longer endorse age / timeline related goals; that's not the healthiest mindset. But most importantly: the seeds of the dream were planted, and the next several years made it a reality.
This is going to sound ridiculous, but by age fifteen, I had grown pretty cynical and jaded as a writer. By this point, I had started then abandoned probably a dozen novel manuscripts. I still desperately wanted to finish and publish a novel, but I kept bringing so much doubt and anxiety with me to each new project, terrified I'd leave this one unfinished too. I decided that I needed a break from novel writing. I focused my energy on short fiction instead.
This next year was so creatively rejuvenating for me. Short stories were far less commitment. I could draft and polish them within the span of a couple weeks. I'd abandoned novels every time I got swept away by a new, more exciting idea, but that wasn't an issue with short stories; I was actually able to see each new, exciting idea through. My love for writing and my confidence in my craft began to return. I self-published a collection of short stories that my sister illustrated in the spring of my junior year. And I finally allowed myself to start thinking about writing a novel again.
I wanted to do it right this time. I already had the idea -- I wanted to expand on one of the short stories I'd included in the collection, a piece about the fractured relationships between three women in a family. I had the thought that I wanted this book to read like a Bollywood drama, which immediately meant shaadi planning as a story backdrop. And I knew I wanted to write a rivals-to-friends-to-lovers romance (what can I say, Pride & Prejudice is a forever favorite!) in the school setting. But I didn't want to rush into anything. For the first time ever, I forced myself to slow down and create a detailed outline before writing a single word.
Everyone was right, and outlining tragically made an enormous difference. For once, I wasn't writing blind; my story had direction. I started my first draft in June 2019, the summer before my senior year of high school, and I finished it up in January 2021, the winter quarter of my freshman year of college. I took a million breaks during this time, especially during senior fall, when I was so busy with college apps and We the People (shoutout Unit 5!), and there were entire months where I didn't write a single word. But I promised myself I'd see it through. The second half of 2020 was the most challenging period of my entire life for a variety of reasons, and ARYA (then titled You Are My Soniya) was definitely a lifeline for me. I remember feeling so determined to make this one good thing happen for myself, when I was enduring so many bad things that were outside of my control. I wanted to give myself the gift of finally finishing a novel, of making the goal I'd had since childhood a reality. Even if ARYA sat unpublished in my Google Drive forever, writing "The End" on the story of my heart would be everything. And at like three AM on January 20th, at my dorm room desk in De Neve Acacia, I got to do just that!
revisions...alexa play hard times by paramore
Literally mere hours after I finished ARYA, I submitted the full manuscript to Author Mentor Match (AMM), a program that pairs aspiring authors with published authors for guidance through the revisions process. I'd applied to AMM before I had a completed draft, which was technically not allowed, and I received a full request on the 18th, when I still had about five chapters left to go in my outline. As you might imagine, I was very panicked and stressed and wrote faster than I ever have in my life to get the draft done in time to pass along. Luckily, it all worked out, and I learned in February that I matched with Tashie Bhuiyan, a young South Asian author I admire so much. So sorry if this is how you're learning of my deception, Tashie!
Revisions were . . . really hard. I'm so grateful that I had Tashie's support to navigate this process. I'd never finished a novel before, so I had no experience with novel revisions, and all of a sudden I was learning about things like three-act vs. four-act structure, emotional beats, how to create truly active protagonists, etc. I thought I'd done most of the work by writing the first draft, but I was quickly learning how much I still had left to do in order to get ARYA querying-ready. There were entire plot points to cut, others to majorly flesh out, lots of chapter rearranging to do too. I'm very prone to writer's doubt / writer's paralysis, and I felt so in my head and intimidated by the tasks before me. It took me an additional six months to complete one singular round of revisions! The draft was still imperfect, but it was finally structurally secure, and by the fall of my sophomore year of college (my first in-person year..), I turned my focus to querying.
This is the part that is likely most helpful to any drafting / querying writers out there, so I'll try to be as detailed and thoughtful as possible. Once I decided my manuscript was ready to query, I spent a week or so researching literary agents that I thought would be a good fit. I used the typical sites like QueryTracker and Manuscript Wish List, and I asked Tashie and some other agented author friends if they had any suggestions for agents to submit to. I also participated in some Twitter pitching events (#DVPit & #PitMad), and I got a few likes on those pitches from agents I otherwise might not have known of. After I had a working list, I began sending my queries out in batches.
My one little strategy while sending out my first queries was checking QueryTracker to see which of the agents on my list had the fastest response times. (Crucially, these agents were all already on my list and represented my genre / age category -- definitely don’t query agents who don’t rep your work just because they are fast responders!) I sent my first handful of queries to these agents to gauge interest and get a sense of whether my querying materials were strong. And they certainly seemed so! I received three partial / full manuscript requests within the span of a few days. I quickly sent out my remaining queries, and over the next few weeks, each time I learned of a new agent who seemed like a match, I would query them too. I'm very Type A, so I kept a super detailed spreadsheet logging each query's status.
One big thing I want to stress here is to not be afraid of cold queries! I remember feeling very anxious while querying that just about everyone these days found their agents through an agent showcase, an online pitching event, a writer’s conference, etc. I felt so scared of just remaining perpetually in the slush pile, forever unread. But I promise this is simply not true. Obviously, if you have the resources / connections / opportunity to secure an agent through the above means, your querying journey might be much smoother. Still, the reality is that the vast majority of agented authors find their agents through cold queries. For me, aside from one referral from a friend and a couple requests through #DVPit, the remaining 40+ queries I sent were all cold queries.
Which brings me to my next point: query that dream agent! Even if they represent tons of bestsellers and book-to-film clients and seem too “big” to be interested in you. Even if people on QueryTracker claim they haven’t taken on a new author in years. There is literally zero downside to shooting your shot, and you should never bet against yourself. I almost didn’t query one agent I really loved because according to QueryTracker, she hadn’t requested new material in months. But she represented an author I loved, whose book signing I’d actually attended as a middle schooler, and I figured there was nothing to lose. I’d gotten quite used to rejections in the last few weeks, and what was one more? I am very, very glad in hindsight that I didn’t listen to that initial doubt and chose to query her anyways.
Here was my query letter, modified slightly each time to fit the agent I was submitting to:
Dear [insert agent],
In YOU ARE MY SONIYA, an #OwnVoices YA contemporary complete at 81,000 words, Arya Khanna’s life gets a Bollywood spin when her older sister gets engaged.
Shaadi preparations are in full swing, which means lehenga shopping, taste testing, dance rehearsals, and best of all, that Alina is home. For the first time in three years, the Khannas are together again, and Arya is determined to keep the peace. She stifles the lingering resentment she still feels towards Alina, plays mediator during bitter mother-daughter fights, and welcomes Nikhil into the family with open arms.
Outside of shaadi planning, Arya’s senior year dreams are unraveling. In between class and her part-time gig as a bookshop assistant, Arya struggles to navigate the aftermath of a bad breakup between her two best friends and a tense partnership (turned friendship turned romance) with former rival, student body president Dean Merriweather.
Arya’s always considered herself a problem solver—the past three years have made her an expert in confronting adversity. But shaadi season teaches Arya new realities: Mamma’s sadness isn’t mendable, some friendships are meant to end, and life doesn’t always work out like the Bollywood movies Arya loves so dearly.
YOU ARE MY SONIYA will appeal to fans of Morgan Matson’s Save The Date and Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever. I revised the manuscript through Author Mentor Match 2021 under author Tashie Bhuiyan, and I currently study English and Political Science at UCLA.
I am excited to query you given [insert personalization]. I have included [insert requested material] Please let me know if I may send additional materials, and thank you so much for your consideration.
I sent my first query on October 14, 2021. The next few months were just comprised of waiting. And it was agonizing! Once I had several full manuscripts out, I literally became such a nightmare to be around. I was constantly glued to my phone, checking and refreshing my inbox for any updates. One weekend in January, I went on a little getaway to San Diego with friends (UCLA had just gone virtual again), and most of what I remember from that trip is literally just refreshing my email. At dinner, refreshing my email. At the beach, refreshing my email. On a bike ride (this was very unsafe), refreshing my email. My lesson from this would probably be to set screen time limits while you’re querying. And like, just try to relax.
I got a few really crushing rejections from agents during this time. I felt a bit afraid that this book I loved so much would never find a home. But I kept telling myself until I fully believed it that my publishing goals were a matter of when, not if. I would always be a writer. If not this book, then the next, or the next, or the next, would get me published.
But on the inside, I desperately wanted my debut to be ARYA. I am so, so glad that it is. :-)
On January 20, 2022, coincidentally exactly a year after I had finished the first draft, I got an email from the dream agent I almost hadn’t queried. Asking to set up a call!!!!
It was a lovely call. The original agent I queried as well as another agent from the agency were both interested in working with me, and I remember feeling so excited and seen on the call. I felt like the agents truly saw my vision and knew exactly what I meant when I said I wanted ARYA to feel like a Bollywood drama in YA novel form. I totally squealed on my dorm room floor after hanging up.
I quickly sent out nudges on my outstanding queries with the standard two week turnaround request. What followed was such a whirlwind. Publishing is usually terribly slow, until it isn’t. After over three months of little to no updates, within a week, I received four additional offers of representation. I was so floored and so thrilled. Every agent I spoke to seemed fantastic, but I still felt drawn to my original offering agents. And so in early February, I signed with the incredible Rebecca Rodd and Kerry Sparks at LGR Literary!
My querying stats in case you're interested, all neat and organized:
54 queries sent
13 closed, no response
21 form rejections
20 partial / full requests
5 offers of representation!
submission & auction :-)
I did a couple rounds of revision with Rebecca and Kerry (we added acts & an intermission to make the manuscript more cinematic and changed the title to Arya Khanna's Bollywood Moment!), and then in late April 2022, we went on submission. Somehow, submission was honestly a lot less stressful than querying. I think it was because this time I had two industry professionals in my corner, who believed in this book as much as I did, so publication no longer felt so terribly out of reach. I was so close to what I wanted. It also helped that Rebecca sent submission updates just on Fridays, so any rejections / other updates accumulated during the week would all be given to me at once. Instead of being constantly anxious, I was now only anxious on Fridays!
On May 23, the day before my twentieth birthday, I learned I had COVID. This was very devastating. I had been so excited to actually celebrate my birthday for the first time in years because of the pandemic, and I had to spent the day in isolation dorms, canceling all of my reservations instead. I was very dramatic and cried a lot and probably annoyed my roommate like crazy. At the same time, because I'm deeply superstitious and believe in balance within the universe and everything, I kind of felt like I was owed something major in exchange for this turn of events. After the biggest flop comes the biggest slay or whatever!
On my birthday, I got an email from my agents saying one of the editors we went on sub to had expressed interest in ARYA and wanted to set up a call about the manuscript! I tried to keep my expectations low, it was super possible that nothing would come of this -- a call didn't guarantee an offer. A few more days went by. My COVID symptoms abated. I got another email from my agents -- a different editor made an official offer on ARYA! And the first editor confirmed that she was planning on coming back to us with an offer as well! We were going to auction.
We had two offers, so the auction was a one-time, best bids situation -- both editors would come forward with their best possible terms, and I would then make my decision. I had a bit of a tough time making a final call -- both editors seemed amazing, and these were both Big 5 publishing houses; I felt like I'd be in great hands either way. I was really nervous about making the wrong decision, so I reached out to authors I really admired and trusted for their advice. Sanjena Sathian and Roshani Chokshi in particular were so incredibly helpful (they are authors I look up to so much, and I was basically fangirling during all the conversations!). Ultimately, I chose to sign with Vicki Lame at Wednesday Books in a two-book deal, and I've been so deeply happy with my decision.
ARYA comes out in six months. I am so emotional and excited to share her with the world. I have never wanted anything so badly in my life. I kind of feel like I can never complain about anything ever again, now that my every 11:11, eyelash wish, birthday candle blow from age twelve onward has been answered. (To be clear, I love to complain, it's like a hobby, I won't be stopping, but point is I am just so, so grateful!) I got my ARCs last week, opened the box with my childhood best friend beside me and my parents on video call, and it was the most surreal thing to hold my book in my hands. I have to keep reminding myself that this is just a beginning. I have so many more books left in me. I want to do this for the rest of my life.
Speaking of, it is time to draft book two very soon. If anyone's read my story in Study Break, book two will feature some familiar faces! Getting attached to short stories and using them as a launching pad for novels is a pattern of mine, clearly. I'm very excited (and nervous) to begin writing. Updates on that front soon, hopefully.
With that, thank you for tuning in, if you made it to the end! Just half a year till ARYA will be in bookshelves. Pre-order / add on Goodreads / etc. -- I appreciate you all tons. <3