Beginnings

Motivation & Inspiration

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I did it.

I made it through the proverbial gate, stood on the other side, and breathed the words, “So this is how it all begins…”

This meaning my life, my dreams, my reason for needing my hands on the keys, drudging up words made of strings attached to every aching question inside of me.

I wrote a book. That book is going to be in readers’ hands. But just because it feels like new doesn’t mean it’s the beginning of this journey. Because this journey is over ten years in the making and I have had that “so this is how it all begins…” moment more than once.

The first time was when I started writing my very first book. I was seventeen and I wrote desperately, feverishly for more than twelve months. I wrote that book by my father’s hospital bed. I finished it shortly before he passed away. And with every word, I thought, this is it. This is why I’m here.

The next time was when I won $100 in a short story contest.

Then again when I finished my second book.

I thought “so this is how it all begins…” when I self-published for the first time. And the second. And the third.

Every time I finished a book and shared it with readers I felt this sense of new beginnings, this wonder at what was to come.

Now I’ve reached another milestone. One I’ve been dreaming about since I was a kid. And it feels surreal and scary and so freaking fantastic.

But calling this the beginning completely negates the past ten years that I have been writing and exploring and growing. I am proud of this moment but I am also proud of all of the other moments that led me to this one. All of the shelved manuscripts and half-written stories. All of the hours spent doubting, forcing out one word, one letter at a time. The wrong turns and the wishful thinking. The daydreaming. The daydreaming about this day.

I have a book deal.

I have a book deal.

But I wouldn’t have it if it wasn’t for all of the things that came before. The things that shaped me, hurt me, saved me. Because it’s those things that have made all of this worth it. That have made this moment mean that much more.

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Dear Laekan

Motivation & Inspiration

Before I got my agent, when I was still daydreaming about the moment all of my hard work would meet the right opportunity, I did everything I could to make my hope a tangible thing. I put sticky notes on my computer at work, set countdowns in my Google calendar, and even wrote myself a letter. A letter speaking about the future as if it had already happened, each word a stitch in the fabric of this dream, slowly making it real.

Everything in that letter was true and honest and heartfelt. All I had to do was write it all down, believing every word and the sentiments behind them were going to be my reality. Without a doubt. And then wait… But more importantly, trust. Trust that I had done all I could to prepare myself for this moment that belonged to me.

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Dear Laekan,

Five months ago, you decided you were going to make your dream of being an author a reality. You gave yourself 18 months because you like structure and deadlines and making things seem real far sooner than they actually are. You like to dream, those dreams so much sweeter when you can measure every step, every mile that you covered in spite of your doubts and fears and anxieties. They did not stop you. And now you’re here. Today, you have reached another milestone you’ve been dreaming about. You got an agent!

It feels surreal and you’re trying desperately to temper your emotions (the way you always do). I get it. You’re afraid to feel excited because you think that good news is always followed by bad. That one step forward means two steps back. You’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, for something terrible to swoop in and steal this moment from you. As if losing it now would be worse than having never gotten it at all.

But stewing in your worries makes you a thief too. Because every time you give in to those fears, you steal your own joy. You hold it captive, waiting for everything around you to be absolutely perfect before you set it free. But if it can’t be free, neither can you.

Over the next few days and weeks, allow yourself to feel everything you’re so afraid to. Pride. Joy. Excitement. Hope. Lean into them, not because they’re permanent, but because they’re not. Because you, of all people, know how fleeting these things can be. So savor them. Let them energize you.

When that excitement hijacks you at 5AM and pushes you to write, let it. When that hope seeps into your muscles, loosening them, relaxing those parts of your body you hadn’t even realized were tied up in knots, let it. When that pride perches on your lips and has you sharing the good news with people you used to hide this part of yourself from, let it.

Let yourself be in this moment. Absorb the magic of it and let that magic carry you forward.

But most importantly, don’t let the appearance of new milestones, of new sources of stress, cause you to forget why you did this. Your why is the only thing that matters. Because even if this dream did implode, your why would still be there, waiting for you to try again. Trying and failing, trying and failing, that’s not going to stop just because you have an agent. So you need to hold tight to why that struggle is still worth it.

Think about that little girl who didn’t know where she fit, who tried on so many different masks, who never felt happy in any of them. Think about all of the other kids who have been written out of children’s literature because they didn’t wear the right mask or speak the right language or pray to the right God. You’ve been writing about straddling worlds and identities since the very beginning. You have been searching for answers for so long.

Now it’s time to share what you’ve found.

So when things get hard, when things get awesome, remind yourself that none of it matters unless the kids reading your books believe they matter. They are the reason for all of this. So celebrate knowing that you have the power to give them space on those shelves. That every day you aren’t just telling stories but building bridges, making mirrors, opening doors and windows, and giving little girls like you permission to take off their masks, to matter, to dream. To shed the pain of being in-between and celebrate the beauty of it instead.

You are one step closer to all of this. Each step that comes next doesn’t have to be perfect but it does have to be sure. Sure of where you’re going and why. You can doubt the words but not why you’re writing them. You can fear the journey but not the destination. So go. Stumble. Fall off the path. Claw and crawl and climb. But get there.

That little girl is waiting for you.

How I Got My Agent

Motivation & Inspiration, Writing Process

I can’t believe I actually get to write one of these posts. I can’t believe it’s going to pop up in someone’s Google search as they’re looking for guidance/solace/inspiration while on their own querying journey.

I can’t believe how much has changed in the past ten months.

I’m not going to go all the way back to the beginning when I was seventeen, a senior in high school, and writing my first book. If you want to read about my writing journey, my self-publishing career, or any of part of this ten-year process not covered in this post, feel free to peruse this blog, which I’ve been keeping since 2012.

What I will say about self-publishing is that while it was a great choice for my earlier works, especially my paranormal romance series, there was still something about the dream of seeing my books in an actual bookstore that I just couldn’t let go of.

So when I finished the initial version of Pen & Xander and realized that it was by far the best thing I’d ever written, I started to feel this spark, this itch to take a risk. To try something new. When the initial feedback from beta readers was resoundingly positive, I knew for certain I was ready for the next stage of my career and that this was the book that was going to get me there.

I spent a couple of years completely re-writing the story, interrupted constantly by the demands of my new teaching career. By year three of teaching, I finally found my footing, and as a result the time to write. By October 2018 I felt ready to query.

I didn’t do a ton of research. Instead, I focused on agents who were very vocal online about the inequities in publishing and who were also actively working towards addressing these inequities by signing clients from marginalized communities and championing books from diverse voices.

That October I sent out two query letters to two agents of color who I really admired. One sent me a form rejection. The other gave me some incredibly helpful feedback about my opening chapter and also commented on the overall word count being too long for YA. She was right. I knew I needed to cut several thousand words but I was still underestimating the amount of revisions I still needed to do.

Between November and December I re-wrote the opening chapter using the agent’s feedback and slowly began the process of making cuts.

December was a revelatory time for me. I’d been feeling like I was stuck in limbo in terms of my writing career, not sure if I was still on the right track; if I was actually talented enough to keep doing the work. I doubted myself. I doubted my life’s choices. I realized that most of them had been made out of fear. But I didn’t want to keep doing that. All of the sudden I felt this desperation to be brave. To make a declaration to the Universe that I was ready to go full force after this dream.

By January I took another step forward. Another agent who I was interested in querying, but who was closed to submissions at the time, was offering a manuscript critique through The Manuscript Academy.

The price for feedback on the first 100 pages was pretty steep. It felt like this enormous risk. But declarations to the Universe are no good without action behind them. Dreaming requires doing. And I’m so glad I did.

That agent’s feedback and encouragement lit a fire under me and I cut 30,000 words from the manuscript in two months. Then, in March, I stumbled across some information about DVPit, a Twitter pitch contest created by agent Beth Phelan to highlight writers from marginalized communities. My manuscript was ready just in time to participate and the whole thing felt meant to be.

I had one week to come up with my pitches and I used the videos and resources on the DVPit website to help me craft each of them. It was my very first pitch that got the most likes.

I made a list of all of the agents who’d liked my pitch, narrowed it down to agents who I thought would be a good fit, and then waited for the weekend to start querying.

Meanwhile, I was still working on manifesting my dreams. On setting specific goals and giving the Universe a specific timeframe by which to deliver them. For weeks, I kept a sticky note on my computer at work forecasting that I’d have an agent by Thursday. Why did I pick Thursday? I’m not sure, but like I said, it’s important to be specific.

As you can see below, several Thursdays passed before I got my wish. But I got it!

After querying, it didn’t take long before agents began requesting the full MS. Then an agent wanted to schedule a phone call.

That agent was Andrea Morrison at Writers House!

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I want to pause here to say that I really didn’t know much about the differences between specific agencies. I couldn’t name any offhand, which meant I certainly didn’t know who represented which authors.

If you’re interested in doing some of this homework before you start querying (which, you probably should) I would suggest checking out the following resources:

  • Query Tracker: This provides detailed agent info, as well as how long they typically take to respond to queries.
  • Manuscript Wishlist: This profiles agents’ tastes and what they’re looking for.
  • Publishers Marketplace: This shows how many deals an agent has represented, what kind of deals, and sometimes for how much.

What mattered most to me in an agent was working with someone who wanted to champion work from diverse voices and someone who was kind. Other authors may prioritize the business side of things more and that’s totally okay. But I wanted to feel safe in the relationship, safe to be vulnerable with my work, and supported emotionally as much as professionally.

What really helped me make my decision was speaking with Andrea’s current clients, who all adored her, and talked a lot about how kind and patient she is. I had a rough year concerning my mental health and there were times when my symptoms felt really out of control. So kindness, and especially patience, mattered a great deal to me. I’ve been doing better lately but I will deal with mental health issues for the rest of my life and I’ve yet to attempt to manage them under the stress of traditional publishing. For that reason, feeling emotionally supported was at the top of my list.

After signing with Andrea, I celebrated with cake, of course. But it still felt very surreal. I knew my manuscript was polished but I wasn’t expecting to get an agent that quickly after the contest. At first, my anxiety tried to convince me that it was a total fluke. But now I realize that it just meant I was ready. That the Universe had been waiting for me to get out of my own way so it could start to deliver those things I desired. Like a team. Connection. An awesome agent. Oh, and a book deal!

Just four months after #DVPit, I got an agent (a dream come true), and I got a book deal (my biggest dream come true). Was there luck involved? I’m sure. But was the entire thing a fluke? Absolutely not. Because I decided in December of 2018 that this would be my new reality. And from that moment on, I didn’t just wish for it. I ran towards it, arms out wide, scared but still reaching. Until those things I longed for reached back.

 

Finding Joy in Writing While on Sub

Motivation & Inspiration, Writing Process

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Being out on submission with a book is a strange thing. On the one hand, you’ve reached a huge milestone by just having something that’s actually in good enough shape to send out. But it’s probably something you’ve been working on for a long time; something that feels finished even though it’s nowhere close (more on that in a later post).

I decided that during this process, it would be best for my mental health not to know much unless there was serious interest. I thought it would be easier to focus on my WIP this way. For a little while, this tactic worked.

But then there was interest. Suddenly. Shockingly. It all happened really fast and the next thing I knew I was on the phone with editors. Actual editors at actual publishing houses. And each one had a very different vision for my book. This thing that felt finished to me, was just a starting point for them. It was a little jarring and the more I mulled over the options, the harder it was to think about anything else.

I woke up every morning at 3:30AM, my mind racing. And not just about the book out on sub that now had the potential of being reincarnated into a million different things but also my WIP, the companion novel to the book on sub.

I tried desperately to re-enter that world, to continue getting to know these other characters, to flesh out a plot that made sense. But then I realized that significant changes to book one would inevitably lead to significant changes to book two and if I didn’t even know what those changes were going to be yet, how could I possibly keep forging ahead blind?

I’ve been struggling with this manuscript for a long time, and being that I’m the type of person who’s always looking for signs, I decided that this must be one. This book hasn’t been working because it wasn’t supposed to. Because things are going to change and I have to let them. I have to let go of what I thought these stories were supposed to be in order to make room for the stories they’re meant to be.

But I also need to write. In the midst of all of this uncertainty, I need to work on something that returns me to the joy of writing, that reminds me why I do it in the first place.

Right now, my middle grade WIP is that happy place. It’s about witches and magical burritos and prophesying horny toads. It’s about friendship and bridging cultural divides and families that function as one beating heart.

Trying to write something new while receiving critiques of something old is hard. It can mess with your head and make you second guess every creative choice you’ve ever made. But instead of avoiding the work, I’m trying to find a way to use it as an escape. The way writing used to be when I was in the midst of grief, when I was struggling financially, when I was experiencing an existential crisis (or two).

Maybe part of being a writer is figuring out what you need out of it every single day. What needs healing? Where can I go; what can I explore that will bring me closer to that healing?

Right now, I need to heal from my own expectations, from my inability to accept my own limitations. I need to find joy and feel good. So I’m getting back to what I know–that the world is magic, that when we love, fearlessly, wholeheartedly, we become magic too.

Latinx Book Love: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, North of Happy, and Sabrina & Corina

Motivation & Inspiration
Latinx Book Love is a Newsletter Feature where I gush about Latinx authors I love and try to convince you to buy their books : )

_0026_lace 034Sabrina & Corina
by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

It’s been a really long time since I read a short story collection. This one was so incredibly satisfying. The characters, the setting, the voice, everything about it was like finding rain in the middle of the desert–an experience I hadn’t even realized I’d been longing for until I fell into these women’s stories. Each one was absolutely stunning in its portrayal of a reality we rarely get to see, let alone reflect on. I’ve heard the statistics before about indigenous women going missing and never being found. Not all of the stories in this collection take this as literally as the title story, Sabrina & Corina, which was gut-wrenching, but so many of the stories deal with loss, with erasure, and with the kind of generational pain that is perpetually present in indigenous, Latinx, and WOC’s lives and how difficult it is to break free from. That was the sense I felt at the end of every story–this deep, visceral longing for freedom. I also felt anger, confusion, bitterness, sadness, and hope. There are flickers of it, here and there, when a character whose circumstances make you ache, finds some agency, or realizes some truth. But more than anything, it made me long for more of Kali’s words because they are absolutely perfect.

Latinas of Indigenous descent living in the American West take center stage in this haunting debut story collection—a powerful meditation on friendship, mothers and daughters, and the deep-rooted truths of our homelands. 
“Here are stories that blaze like wildfires, with characters who made me laugh and broke my heart.”—Sandra Cisneros
Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s magnetic story collection breathes life into her Latina characters of indigenous ancestry and the land they inhabit in the American West. Against the remarkable backdrop of Denver, Colorado—a place that is as fierce as it is exquisite—these women navigate the land the way they navigate their lives: with caution, grace, and quiet force.
In “Sugar Babies,” ancestry and heritage are hidden inside the earth but tend to rise during land disputes. “Any Further West” follows a sex worker and her daughter as they leave their ancestral home in southern Colorado only to find a foreign and hostile land in California. In “Tomi,” a woman leaves prison and finds herself in a gentrified city that is a shadow of the one she remembers from her childhood. And in the title story, “Sabrina & Corina,” a Denver family falls into a cycle of violence against women, coming together only through ritual.
Sabrina & Corina is a moving narrative of unrelenting feminine power and an exploration of the universal experiences of abandonment, heritage, and an eternal sense of home.Image result for amazon icon

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North of Happy
by Adi Alsaid

Before #DVPit I was searching for comp titles and happened to come across North of Happy by Adi Alsaid. It has all of my favorite things–tacos, restaurant dynamics, a quiet, internal conflict, and Mexicans (I’m partial). This book has the most beautiful slow build and an ending so poignantly and poetically human that it left me feeling alive in all the best and worst ways. That is the heart of this story–that life is both hopeful and heartbreaking, wonderful and devastating and that it is those quiet moments in between when we are doing something we love with people we love that matter. This book reminded me that the human experience is nuanced and full of “small stakes” moments that shape us in so many unexpected and significant ways. We don’t have to be on a quest to save the world to have a live worth living. We are all big and we are all small. Whatever we can create with the gifts we’ve been given, it is enough. The pursuit, the attempt, the imperfect execution, it is enough.

Carlos Portillo has always led a privileged and sheltered life. A dual citizen of Mexico and the United States, he lives in Mexico City with his wealthy family, where he attends an elite international school. Always a rule follower and a parent pleaser, Carlos is more than happy to tread the well-worn path in front of him. He has always loved food and cooking, but his parents see it as just a hobby.
When his older brother, Felix—who has dropped out of college to live a life of travel—is tragically killed, Carlos begins hearing his brother’s voice, giving him advice and pushing him to rebel against his father’s plan for him. Worrying about his mental health but knowing the voice is right, Carlos runs away to the United States and manages to secure a job with his favorite celebrity chef. As he works to improve his skills in the kitchen and pursue his dream, he begins to fall for his boss’s daughter—a fact that could end his career before it begins. Finally living for himself, Carlos must decide what’s most important to him and where his true path really lies.
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I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
by Erika L. Sánchez

THIS. BOOK. The title says it all and yet, the moment I heard Julia’s voice, so unapologetically raw and real; so disinterested with playing the part, with pandering to expectations that do not make her feel alive, I was stunned and seen and completely sliced open. THIS BOOK was my permission to write characters that don’t fit perfectly into either whiteness or Latinx. Into either American or Mexican. Julia is perfect because of her imperfections and isn’t that the truth so many Latinx women need to hear? I didn’t have a mom like Julia’s who was distant and unable to summon empathy when her daughter needed it most. But Julia’s interactions with her mom reminded me of stories I’d heard my own mother tell about what it was like growing up with adult siblings and older parents. With a mom who was critical and how that air of criticism, even when unspoken, was suffocating. This book allowed me to see into my mother’s life, into her girlhood dreams that were snuffed out by cynicism and fear. And I was able to understand how those experiences shaped the parent she became; the mother she was to me. For that insight, for Julia’s inspiring bravery, for her brokenness too, I am grateful.

Perfect Mexican daughters do not go away to college. And they do not move out of their parents’ house after high school graduation. Perfect Mexican daughters never abandon their family.
But Julia is not your perfect Mexican daughter. That was Olga’s role.
Then a tragic accident on the busiest street in Chicago leaves Olga dead and Julia left behind to reassemble the shattered pieces of her family. And no one seems to acknowledge that Julia is broken, too. Instead, her mother seems to channel her grief into pointing out every possible way Julia has failed.
But it’s not long before Julia discovers that Olga might not have been as perfect as everyone thought. With the help of her best friend Lorena, and her first love, first everything boyfriend Connor, Julia is determined to find out. Was Olga really what she seemed? Or was there more to her sister’s story? And either way, how can Julia even attempt to live up to a seemingly impossible ideal?Image result for amazon icon_0026_lace 034
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