Alexandra and Kiana, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview and congratulations on your partnership! To start, Alexandra, I’d love to know more about your book and why you wrote it.
ALEX: My book WHAT THE WATER GAVE US is what I describe as STRANGER THINGS meets ONE OF US IS LYING. It has secrets and lies and deception, and it’s set in an eerie small town.
I’ve always loved mystery books and I wanted to write one for a long time. The idea came to me when I was taking a psychology class and I learned about the Rashomon effect, which is where people experience the same event but all remember it differently. The whole concept fascinates me and I wanted to incorporate it in a book.
The story revolves around 7 teenagers and the majority of them are queer. It was really important to me that my characters reflected a diverse pool of teens because that’s the world we live in, and I believe it’s very important for kids to see themselves in literature. This was also my first #ownvoices book so it’s very near and dear to my heart.
Kiana, what was it about this manuscript that sealed the deal for you?
KIANA: I am a character-reader/lover, first and foremost, and I fell in love with each of the ensemble cast as I was introduced to them. Each of them has their own distinct voice and, more importantly, their own secrets that drive their motivations and actions. The only thing you can trust about them is that they have their own best interest at heart!
Alexandra, how did you prepare this manuscript for submission? Do you work with outlines, schedules, or deadlines? Do you have critique partners and beta readers?
ALEX: I’m a big outliner, so I had the main beats of the story plotted before I even wrote a single word but I left the parts between those beats vague so I still had room to improvise. As for a schedule, I worked every day and set deadlines for every step of the process to keep myself motivated.
I have a handful of wonderful CPs and beta readers who helped me get my story into tip top shape. I also have a wonderful mentor, Kayla Olson, who I connected with through Author Mentor Match. I did one round of edits on my own, and then I had help with the next 4 or so drafts, half of which involved some extensive changes.
And how was the #DVpit experience for you, overall? Expectations? Doubts? Disappointments?
ALEX: This was my second time participating in #DVpit and I was a little nervous that I wouldn’t be able to top my amazing experience from the first time. I tried not to set my expectations too high so I was really blown away by all the support from the community. The best part about #DVpit, for me, is connecting with other writers—the agent likes are just a (very big) plus.
How was the experience for you, Kiana?
KIANA: It was so dope! The fist DVpit in 2016 is what got me back into publishing—I love that marginalized writers have been given a platform to get their voices and stories seen by more industry professionals. I am not exaggerating when I say DVpit is my favorite time (and now times) of the year! I love best the sense of community that comes from participating and interacting with writers who pitch in the contest.
Alexandra, did you receive pitch help or tips? Any words of wisdom you’d like to pass along to future participants?
ALEX: Kat Cho hosted #PreDV a few days before DVpit, so I got a chance to test out my pitch and get feedback from other writers. It was helpful not just for perfecting my pitch, but it also gave me a bit of a confidence boost before the real event.
My biggest advice to future participants is that your pitch does not need to be perfect! Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t fit everything into your pitch, because it just needs to be eye-catching and enticing. Plus, the best part of DVpit is connecting with other writers!
And Kiana, do you have any advice for querying authors and/or for anyone planning to participate in a future #DVpit?
KIANA: Never ever forget about the character that leads your story. The more we know and care about your character—in a query, especially—the more invested we’ll be in your project. As for future DVpits, try to have as much fun as you can and really be open to meeting other writers who are pitching as well! Querying can be very lonely and pitch contests, especially DVpit, bring together writers in a communal space. Take advantage and meet new people!
Tell us about The Call, Alexandra!
ALEX: I got the email first thing in the morning when I checked my phone. Let me tell you, I have never sat up so fast in my life! I did a lot of freaking out and breathing exercises during the lead up to the call.
The call itself went really well. I was nervous because I have bad phone anxiety, but Kiki was so easy to talk to and she answered every question I had. Her enthusiasm for my book was so heartening and I knew as soon as I ended the call that she was the perfect agent for me.
Give us the pitch that hooked your agent!
ALEX: “STRANGER THINGS+ONE OF US IS LYING: Rosalie tries to find her missing friend, unaware of what lurks in the lake #YA #lgbt #DVpit”
Kiana, what was it about this pitch that caught your attention?
KIANA: 100%: #lgbt. I am not really interested in heteronormative narratives, so I was specifically looking through queer-associated tags when surfing through pitches. Second to that, I am still obsessed with ONE OF US IS LYING, and all of the crafty ways Karen twisted and turned us between the multiple POVs. I am a sucker for a murderous secret. I also was immediately intrigued by the STRANGER THINGS comp paired with a female perspective—that’s what I’m looking for. Ensemble casts that focus on girls and non-cismale perspectives.
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?
KIANA: I am really desperate for a YA where black teens are joyful, in any genre. I say I want happy queer romances, but I also love a really good angsty heartbreak or messy relationship, too. Give me WayHaught, but also Shane/Cameron (The L Word). I don’t want ordinary good girls and I’m not interested in picket-fence contemporaries—no middle-class, mostly white cast of teens rebelling in their comfortable worlds for me.
Warm congratulations to Alexandra and Kiana for finding each other! I’m looking forward to seeing where they go next. Follow them on Twitter so you can do the same!
Alexandra Higgins (@alexhiggins0407) is a young adult writer who writes in many genres, but always has complex female characters at the heart of her stories. When she's not writing, you can find her watching Netflix, listening to true crime podcasts or devouring any books she can get her hands on. Alexandra lives near DC with her family, two cats, and one spoiled dog.
Kiana Nguyen (@kianangu) is an Assistant Agent at Donald Maass Literary Agency, and represents young adult fiction, adult romance, and thrillers. Born and raised in Upstate New York, she now lives in NYC fighting for living space amongst her books. When Kiana isn't consuming stories in fiction, film, or television, she likes to pretend she hikes and experiences the outdoors.