A #DVpit Success Story:
Interview with Hafsah Faizal and John Cusick

** UPDATE: Hafsah Faizal’s book has found a publisher! We are so delighted to have Hafsah back to answer a few follow-up questions about the deal, the book, and the experience since #DVpit.

Hafsah, first of all, congratulations on your book deal! We’d love to hear how the submission process was for you, from editing to polishing, to going out on sub to publishers, to getting news of your book deal. Catch us up on what’s happened since #DVpit!

HAFSAH: Since signing with John, everything was a whirlwind. A week after signing Folio contracts, I received his edit letter, just days after my grandmother’s passing and Ramadan’s end. It was a crazy time, but I worked on edits in time for the loose deadline we set, and six weeks after signing with John, we were out on submission.

It was an exciting, exciting time. Just two days after sending out the manuscript, editors were sending in emails. Every little update (second reads! sequel summaries! another request! scouts!) sent my heart racing. Before I knew it, I had chatted with several editors and WE HUNT THE FLAME was sitting on an auction table. The suspenseful day ended with Janine O’Malley at FSG/Macmillan scoring the winning bid.

Tell us about your editor! What was it like speaking to them for the first time? What is your relationship like?

HAFSAH: Speaking with Janine for the first time was like speaking to an old friend. I knew she was an executive editor at Macmillan and that she had worked on some amazing books, like THE WINNER’S CURSE, so I was naturally very nervous. But she made me feel completely at ease—a big feat because I’m so anxious over the phone. We discussed my dreams for WE HUNT THE FLAME and I love how much thought and consideration she puts into her work and responses. I feel empowered having her (and Melissa Warten, her assistant) on my side!

Looking back, is there anything you wish you knew or prepared for when you were first entering #DVpit and getting ready to pitch agents?

HAFSAH: Savor every moment. It’s so easy to read all the success stories, wish for them and at the same time feel it can never happen to us. And then when it does happen, we’re so caught up in fear and worry and anxiety that we forget to cherish and savor every little bit. Publishing is that magical little thing that either trickles by or zooms past. I had my first agent offer in a week, and then multiple calls within the two week timeframe. Submission to sale was just as quick comparatively, and if I can go back and remind myself to breathe and cherish every little moment in this journey, I would. Because it only happens once!

Are there any updates you can share about your book? Pub date, hints about the cover, finalized jacket copy, pre-order links, etc?

HAFSAH: Alas, it’s too early for all of that. But as soon as I have news, I’ll share updates on my website and Twitter!

What’s next for you?

HAFSAH: In between edits for WE HUNT THE FLAME, I’ve been mulling and thinking over its sequel (it sold as a duology). I’m also tinkering with another exciting project I’ve had simmering for quite some time. All I can say is: more fantasy!

Congratulations once again, Hafsah! Thank you for sharing your journey with us, and best of luck with the publication of WE HUNT THE FLAME. We’re all excited to see it hit shelves! Readers, please add this one to your Goodreads shelf if you haven’t already!

[The original interview follows.]

Hafsah and John, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview and congratulations on your partnership! To start, Hafsah, I’d love to know more about your book and why you wrote it.

HAFSAH: Hello, hello! Thanks for having me. My story is a YA fantasy set in an alternate Arabia. When contenders from the world's disbanded kingdoms converge upon a deadly island in search of magic, a huntress must disguise herself as a man to join the quest, while the Prince of Death is tasked with killing the contenders and stealing magic for himself.

When I began writing this book four years ago, nearly every YA fantasy was set in some European place or another. So of course, mine was, too. I had written about 30K of the story with Welsh names and places when I realized something about it felt wrong. Off. So I took a break to piece together the world’s map, and that was when it hit me.

People would say: “I read to find myself”, yet I only ever read to lose myself, because there was no way I could find myself in a world of corsets and wine, of carriages and top hats.

This was my story. What if I could both lose and find myself? What if I could escape the inadvertent boundaries set by mainstream YA, and the instilled mindset that the only saviors in fictitious worlds could be white? What if I could give readers like myself a book set in the world of Arabia that wasn’t about terrorism, forced marriage, or magical genies?

A book where the heroine could be a girl who knows of henna and the difference between dates. Where the hero could be a boy raised in the deserts of Arabia, who knows the feel of the language upon his tongue.

John, what was it about this manuscript that sealed the deal for you?

JOHN: I know I’ve fallen in love with a manuscript when I stop reading critically and just lose myself in the story. With Hafsah’s, I honestly think I knew within the first thirty pages. There’s an image of a young woman riding out of a dark and cursed wood and into an arctic landscape—she’s totally alone, and thinks she’s safe, until she spies strange figures on the horizon. That image gave me chills, and from that moment on I was no longer reading as an agent, but as a guy who loves to get lost in books. Before long I was sketching out a map of Hafsah’s world, which is what I always do when I’m reading a fantasy that’s consuming my imagination. I was hooked!

Hafsah, how did you prepare this manuscript for submission? Do you work with outlines, schedules, or deadlines? Do you have critique partners and beta readers?

HAFSAH: This was my fifth manuscript, and my last attempt to find an agent. I worked on and off on the manuscript for four years, but began dedicating more time on it after I started talking about it on Twitter and found there was interest. I do not outline, but I tend to think up individual scenes in my head and work from one scene to another.

I never had many critique partners, mostly because my schedule doesn’t always leave me with time for reciprocating, and, because, when I finished this story, I wanted to send it out as soon as I could. That said, I owe a huge thank you to Marieke Nijkamp and Joanna Hathaway, who set aside so much to read and critique the manuscript over about three days, and also to my sisters, Asma and Azraa, who labored over the story with me from the days of its inception.

And how was the #DVpit experience for you, overall? Expectations? Doubts? Disappointments?

HAFSAH: I decided to join #DVpit the day of #DVpit. And the manuscript wasn’t even ready! I had finished writing it, but was still only a quarter-way through edits, which meant any agents who placed requests through the contest could tire of waiting—never a good thing! But I had a solid list of agents who were already interested in the manuscript, and after Beth gave me the okay, I thought, why not?

I only spent time putting together a single pitch and decided I wouldn’t put too much thought or hope into it. But the response was overwhelming. I received over a hundred Twitter likes—though I only ended up querying twenty-five of the agents—and multiple offers of representation.

How was the experience for you, John?

JOHN: I favorited dozens of pitches that round, but in the end you never know if the manuscript itself will live up to the pitch. Hafsah’s sounded exactly like the sort of story I love. Several of the #DVPit tweets were getting very many likes, and when I saw how popular hers was, I thought, “Oh no, how am I ever going to compete?” Then I had to sit back and wait for her to send me her sample pages. The moment I started reading it was that combined feeling of “Wow this is so amazing!” and “Oh boy, this is going to get a ton of offers, and I can’t live without it!”

Hafsah, did you receive pitch help or tips? Any words of wisdom you’d like to pass along to future participants?

HAFSAH: I was in a rush to tweet because I had an appointment later that day, but I was able to squeeze in some help from a few friends, yes. In the end, the majority of my assistance came from my two sisters.

If you’re on the fence about whether or not you should enter: please do! It doesn’t hurt to try, and the opportunity only comes twice a year. If you tweet early and it’s not performing as expected, think about putting together a new pitch. Run it past a friend who hasn’t yet read your novel, because they’ll view it the same way an agent or editor might!

And John, do you have any advice for querying authors and/or for anyone planning to participate in a future #DVpit?

JOHN: Specifics are what get agents and editors excited, so a generic pitch like “A girl must solve a mystery to save her soul,” probably doesn’t reveal enough to hook your audience. Every story has a unique hook, so try to work what’s fresh about your book into your pitch— this will help you stand out from the pack. And Hafsah’s right, if at first your pitch isn’t receiving the response you want, try rewording. I’ve seen authors send out a new pitch for the same book later in the day and thought, “Now THAT sounds really interesting!”

Tell us about The Call, Hafsah!

HAFSAH: Oh gosh, the call. I had several calls, and spoke to a few of the offering agents several times. I kept a journal handy to record key points from each conversation, as I was having one to two per day. By the time I spoke to John, I felt like I had a better grasp at things, but still ended up blabbering incoherently, as is the norm with me!

Our call went wonderfully. It was—and still is!—a little surreal to hear an agent gushing about my writing, my characters, and how he was sketching a map and jotting down things while reading. Hearing his ideas for how to fix the book, about others at his agency who were excited to have me on board, and how strongly he believed in the story were what sold me.

Give us the pitch that hooked your agent!

HAFSAH: “Alt-Arabia: huntress masquerades as boy in tournament where the Prince of Death is tasked to kill her—unless the prize does first #YA #DVpit”

John, what was it about this pitch that caught your attention?

JOHN: Hafsah packed so many amazing details into her pitch. Firstly, I want to read a fantasy set in an Alt-Arabia. I hadn’t seen a backdrop quite like that before. Also, I was grabbed by the potential themes suggested by “huntress masquerades as a boy”—immediately this line suggests a kind of deeper story exploring ideas of gender and representation. Finally, her pitch is full of tension and high stakes. A Prince of Death is out to kill her! The very prize she’s seeking could be deadly! I mean come on, that sounds awesome.

What else are you looking for these days? Is there anything specific on your wishlist that you’re hoping to find, maybe at the next #DVpit?

JOHN: I love fantasy and sci-fi, set in our world and others. I also love contemporary realistic stories with strong hooks, and perhaps a fantastical or sci-fi element (I’m still looking for a YA like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). I’m also really eager for great middle-grade, both character-driven coming-of-age and adventure stories. I want books I can geek out about, and books that break my heart. And if a story can do both? Sold!

Warm congratulations to Hafsah and John for finding each other! I’m looking forward to seeing where they go next. Follow them on Twitter so you can do the same!

Hafsah Faizal (@hafsahfaizal) is the author of WE HUNT THE FLAME, a YA fantasy forthcoming from FSG/Macmillan in 2019. She’s also the owner of IceyDesigns, where she creates websites for authors and beauteous goodies for everyone else. Born in Florida and raised in California, she now resides in Texas with her family, some koi, and a library of books waiting to be devoured.

John Cusick is a literary agent with Folio Jr. / Folio Literary Management, representing New York Times bestsellers and award-winning authors of books for young people. You can find him online at johnmcusick.com and on Twitter: @johnmcusick.