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

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 writes YA. She’s the blogger behind IceyBooks, and the designer and lettering artist at IceyDesigns. Her work has graced the sites of New York Times bestselling authors and bloggers alike, and her designs have been featured in BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, BookRiot and more. She lives in Dallas, Texas with her family and an abundance of books. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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.