A #DVpit Success Story:
Interview with Justin Reynolds and Beth Phelan

** UPDATE: j.a. (Justin) reynolds’s book, OPPOSITE OF ALWAYS, has found a publisher! We are so delighted to have Justin back to answer a few follow-up questions about the deal, the book, and the experience since #DVpit.

Justin, 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!

JUSTIN: Thank you so much! Honestly, it was quite the whirlwind.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, only that there really wasn’t any one way that things could develop, that things could follow a number of paths.  Fortunately, my agent Beth and I work really well together and agreed on how we might make the story even stronger.  So, after a few broad-to-detailed rounds of editing over the course of a few months, we set our sights on a submission date.  Of course, given the nature of the story (ahem, time-travel, second chances, burgeoning love) we HAD to submit on Groundhog Day.  After Beth gave me the news that the book was officially out into the wild, I settled in for the long haul, and tried to think of something (anything) else.

But then the amazing (and equally startling) happened: we got interest the very next day. And then a couple of days after that, we got our first offer.  And then another.  Shortly thereafter, we were headed for auction.

And admittedly, I was rather excited, but also a jumble of nerves.  I got the opportunity to talk to several really awesome editors at other major houses, all of whom are outstanding in their own right, and who offered tremendous feedback.  It was an especially heartwarming few weeks, because not only did it feel incredible to have so many people responding positively to my work, but more importantly, to see such a response to a story that celebrated diversity.  It was a time in my life I’ll never be able to fully articulate, and will surely never forget.

Since then, I’ve gotten to work side-by-side with some really cool people (who are also kick-ass at their job), like Gemma Cooper, who helped Opposite of Always find its way overseas to the United Kingdom.  And that connection led me and the book into the super-talented hands of Rachel Petty and the UK Macmillan family.  And we’ve been extremely fortunate to have sold the book to an additional 14 other territories to date, for which I can’t thank all of the incredibly hard-working co-agents enough.  To imagine Opposite of Always being read in so many other languages is a dream that is only possible because of the tireless teamwork behind the scenes.  I never fully comprehended just how many people it takes to bring a book to life (and to shelves).  I’m appreciative.

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

JUSTIN:  In a word, Ben Rosenthal is awesome!  He understands the overall themes I’m building upon in this story, but he also connects to it on a micro level, which has been encouraging.  Our first talk was a microcosm of all our subsequent chats: an amalgam of our favorite books and movies, what in the heck we think is happening with our hometown sports’ teams, how much we love young adult literature (especially right now!), and a fond reflection on our midwestern roots.  I guess you could say, we click.

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

JUSTIN:  Relax.  If you’re like me, you’re constantly pacing the line between eagerness (I can’t wait, this is so exciting!) and general anxiety (what if no one favorites my pitches, what if my story is terrible?).  But if you’ve done all that you can ahead of time—revising, researching, incense-lighting—do your best to enjoy the process, rather than let it overtake you.  Nothing is promised, especially in the arts, but you can decide to keep loving what you’re doing, and be determined to stay with it (and improve) regardless of outcome.

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

JUSTIN:  So, the book is slated for publication in Winter 2019, which falls in the January-February timeframe.  Who knows, maybe we’ll hit Groundhog Day again!

What’s next for you?

JUSTIN: I’m actually documenting the answer to this question on my Twitter page.  I’ve started an update thread that shares my progress (and a little bit of my process, too!) as I attempt to complete Opposite of Always edits, while simultaneously working on the aptly titled YA Book #2.  And I have to say I may be even MORE excited about Book 2 (am I allowed to say that??).  Oops.  My apologies.

Congratulations once again, Justin! Thank you for sharing your journey with us, and best of luck with the publication of OPPOSITE OF ALWAYS. We’re all excited to see it hit shelves! Readers, you should add this amazing book to your Goodreads shelf if you haven’t already, plus follow him on Twitter for updates and writerly wisdom.

[The original interview follows.]

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

JUSTIN: This is a story that originated from loss. People often say (myself included), what I wouldn’t give to see my dead loved one again. So, I wondered, would you still want to see them once more, if you knew you’d have to lose them all over again? And what if there was the possibility that you could save them, prevent them from dying at all, how far would you go? What, or who, would you be willing to sacrifice?

This story is about Jack who has finally found his All-Time groove: he meets Kate, the girl of his dreams, his best friends Jillian and Francisco are in love—with each other!—and their band is set to make its official world premiere (at his parents’ 30th anniversary party, but still). Naturally, the closer they get to the gig, the more Jack’s perfect world crumbles. And when Kate suddenly dies after a sickle cell crisis, it seems like the groove is over. Until Jack finds himself at the same party where he first met Kate six months before, with a chance to rewrite their future.

Time travel is a concept that has always intrigued me, because all of us, at one point, have wished we could either travel to the past to change things, or travel to the future to learn things. But with such ability comes a tremendous amount of obligation—to our friends and family, to the people that we love, to our dead and to our living.

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

BETH: In short: IT. WAS. EVERYTHING. I fell so deeply in love with Jack, as hard and as fast and as epically as he fell in love with Kate. He is vulnerable; he is hilarious; he is romantic; he is adorably awkward, and your heart breaks for him. It was his voice and humor that really did it for me, but the wrenching plot and compelling side characters made this impossible to put down and frankly impossible to let go. It’s a story I just had to have in my life.

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

JUSTIN: The idea for the manuscript had been germinating in my brain for some time before I actually sat down to write it. But I was fortunate in that Jack’s voice came to me rather quickly. And I sort of just allowed him to lead me wherever he needed to go. I don’t typically outline, because for me, it becomes about trying to steer the story in that predetermined direction, and I enjoy surprising myself because it makes me believe readers will be surprised, too. That being said, I usually have a general feeling about key “mile markers” for the story; important scenes that I know will happen at some point along the way.

I do not have critique partners or beta readers, although there have been times when I’ve pressed my non-writing friends into service, handing them a chapter or two and grilling them relentlessly asking them for their overall impression. I find with feedback, too much too soon, can be counterproductive for me; that it can kill an idea (or at least my enthusiasm) before it’s had time to fully develop. But I certainly understand the value of having another set of eyes read your work.

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

JUSTIN: #DVPit was an awesome experience, and I honestly don’t say that because it helped connect me with an amazing agent. I’m not a huge social media person, because I’m generally huddled in my corner typing away, but having some form of writing community is important. #DVPit reminded me of that need. And it was incredible to see so many people (fellow writers, agents, editors) genuinely enthused about diversity. I was happy to be apart of it. There are quite a few people that I now keep in regular contact with thanks to #DVPit, which I may have otherwise never “met”.

Truthfully, there was a point where I’d talked myself out of entering #DVPit, because I was focusing on the rejection that I associated with these sorts of events. But there was something different about #DVPit. It felt more inclusive. It was actually encouraging you to represent your own, unique voice. It wanted to celebrate everyone’s point of view. For me, that sealed the deal.

The only disappointment was that 12 hours later it had to end.

How was the experience for you, Beth?

BETH: I feel really lucky that a number of writers came away with agents, and that agents found some amazing writers to work with. I was watching pitches collect faves and RT’s, but more than that I was watching so many writers connecting with each other, supporting one another, and cheering each other on—which made me really happy. That’s the best feeling and everything I wanted out of #DVpit. But finding two incredible writers, Justin and Kat, for my own list was more than I could have hoped for. Like I said, I just feel so, so lucky.

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

JUSTIN: I didn’t receive any pitch help (not that I couldn’t have used some). My pitches were entirely my own, for better or worse. But I did research other pitch events for what seemed to catch agents’ and editors’ attention. The conclusions I came to were:

1) You have to really know what your story is at its heart; be able to drill down to its (140-character) core.

2) If you decide to make comparisons to other published works (or even to movies), especially well-known titles, make sure the comparisons actually fit.

And 3) Include your demographic. If your manuscript is young adult, add #YA to your tweets. This helps agents zero in on their interests, is more likely to get you noticed by agents who rep your category, and saves everyone precious time.

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

BETH: Participate! I hear so many writers weren’t sure about it (like Justin) but I’m so grateful that they chose to go through with it. And I hope that it continues to be a space where marginalized writers feel welcome and encouraged and supported. And if you’re not ready, that’s okay. Don’t rush. Don’t force it. The agents on the feed are looking for your voices in their queries as well, when you’re ready. #DVpit isn’t just a pitching platform; you can still use it to connect with other writers too.

Tell us about The Call, Justin!

JUSTIN: Where to begin? The Call was everything I’ve always imagined it to be and more. When I got the email requesting The Call, I did my best to maintain my professionalism (especially since I work in a hospital), but it was difficult to contain my excitement. When we actually spoke, I did my best to sound coherent and semi-competent, but in reality, I was a combination of nerves and glee. Fortunately, Beth was super easy to talk with; we discussed everything about my manuscript—the good, bad, and ugly—and it was clear from the beginning just how much she believed in my story, and how much she believed in my ability to tell it the best. I took lots of notes during our call, but ultimately, talking with Beth felt like talking to an old friend. We were all over the place (in a good way), talking about movies and tv shows, and our favorite books. I remember thinking, if this conversation is anything like what working together would feel like, then I know I’d be in excellent (editorial) hands. It was The Call you dream about.

Give us the pitch that hooked your agent!

JUSTIN: “SIMONVS+BACK TO THE FUTURE Jack rewinds 6 mos to save GF from sickle cell, BFF from bad dad, & play killer horn at folks’ 30th #DVPIT #YA #OWN”

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

BETH: I liked that there were a few things going on here but they all told me so much. The stakes were clear, and they were quite serious, but there was voice in here too that made me think I would still find humor. And it was so right. I laughed and I cried while reading. A lot. Of both. Plus, I love the BACK TO THE FUTURE angle. It completely hooked me.

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

BETH: I’m still looking for more diversity in my adult list, for sure. Other things high on my wishlist are perspectives about trichotillomania and/or excoriation disorder, intersectional diversity in general, aaaand basically everything #ownvoices on the #MuslimSquadWL.

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

Justin Reynolds (@andthisjustin) He’s been a pest control operator, a night security guard, cleaned offices at a steel mill, interned at NASA, sold high-end faucet fixtures, installed carpet flooring, taught 5th graders, and is most recently a registered nurse, happily caring for hematology, oncology, and orthopedic patients. And alas—now he gets to write books that you can read. j.a. reynolds’ debut YA novel OPPOSITE OF ALWAYS is forthcoming from Katherine Tegen Books in the U.S. and Macmillan in the U.K. He hangs out around Cleveland.

Beth Phelan (@beth_phelan) has been a literary agent at the Bent Agency since 2013, where she represents MG and YA fiction, adult romance, thrillers/suspense, and the occasional cookbook. She’s a graduate of NYU and is really into her dogs, food, and beer. She can also be found at bethphelan.com and on Instagram at beth_phelan.