A #DVpit Success Story:
Interview with Aminah Mae Safi and Lauren MacLeod

** UPDATE: Aminah Mae Safi’s book, NOT THE GIRLS YOU’RE LOOKING FOR will be published by Feiwel & Friends, a Macmillan Children’s imprint! We are so delighted to have Mae back to answer a few follow-up questions about the deal, the book, and the experience since #DVpit.

Mae, 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!

MAE: Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity—yet again—to be here. Beth Phelan is an actual fairy godmother, y’all.

First thing’s first: set some reasonable deadlines with your agent. I think we avoided eighty-five percent of communication errors because I asked Lauren when she wanted to go on submission by, then set a date in that range. I even told her I’d update her when the deadline got closer. And as it turned out, I did need an extra week. But because we were both being clear with each other, I wasn’t sitting around waiting for her to get back to me and she wasn’t worried I wasn’t getting through my notes.

I did one intensive round of edits on NOT THE GIRLS YOU’RE LOOKING FOR with Lauren, then she checked in with me to see how I felt about going on submission. Saying yes gave me that good kind of panic—the kind before big performances or first dates or roller coasters.

I was ready, but also, I kind of wanted to throw up.

Those first few days on submission are the worst. You try to get other things done but all you can think about is the fact that your book or the pitch for your book is just sitting in some editor’s inbox waiting to be read. You keep checking your email every five minutes, knowing you’re not going to hear anything but checking anyway. I’d also heard from several authors that being on submission is a process that can take anywhere from a few months to a few years. Looking out into the future felt like looking into space—some eternal vastness where anything could happen. An unending future of jumping every time I saw a new message pop into my inbox.

Then my book sold in three weeks.

Here’s the thing few people tell you about finding an agent or selling your book or any milestone—there will be places where you feel different or less than you thought you would and places where you feel more than you thought you could. I saw my picture in a Publisher’s Weekly announcement and thought who is that?

Everyone was so supportive and I kept telling people, hoping it would make the sale feel more real, but instead it just intensified the feeling that this elusive, ephemeral, unknowable thing had happened. For me, getting my first set of notes back from my editor provided a concrete task to work through and helped me believe that eventually a real, live book with a cover and a spine and a flap copy would come out of all of this.

I say this because: you and your work are no less real because they haven’t sold yet. You’re not less of a writer because you’re still working and pushing through those initial barriers. There’s an external legitimacy that comes from selling your work, but your internal worth and legitimacy is always yours. Put this on a post it, write it on a mirror, hang it on the door—you are valuable, your work is valuable, and nobody buying or rejecting your work can change that.

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

MAE: Kat Brzozowski worked with R.L. Stein to revive FEAR STREET, which set my 90s tween heart aflutter, to be honest. She works at Macmillan’s Swoon Reads and Feiwel & Friends. She also worked on Anna-Marie McLemore’s books (WHEN THE MOON WAS OURS, THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS), Laurie Elizabeth Flynn’s FIRSTS, and Jessica Love’s IN REAL LIFE.

I read through her booklist and I got a big ol’ professional crush. I could tell from her work that she would get what I was doing. Talking with her on that first call confirmed that. She wanted a title change, some character name changes, and streamlining. She wanted to preserve the messiness of my main characters and their friendship. I was pretty much gone after that.

Someone please teach me how to play it cool.

The best way I can describe working with Kat is that she speaks my language. Most of my writing training came through academia, so I learned pretty early that an editor or an advisor pointing out a problem in a manuscript has two pieces—the direct problem they’ve spotted, and the underlying goal behind that note. There’s usually a moment where you have to look at a note and say okay what is the problem this person sees? What are they actually driving to fix?

With Kat, she points out a problem and I see what she means immediately. NOT THE GIRLS YOU’RE LOOKING FOR is about angry girls having a hell of a time fixing the messes they make for themselves. I know Kat loves this about my book—complicated friendships and girl gangs and flawed young women. When I see a note, I know she’s trying to pull this out of my story. I trust that.

One of the hardest parts about editing is you put your butt in the chair and you work through it and then eventually, if you’ve done your job, you get your book back and you start the whole process over again. Editing is iterative, so there’s this kind of dizzying flow to it. Very lather, rinse, repeat. Very I’ve seen that tree before. Take some breaks, see other humans, and get outside if you can. You’ll never get through edits without giving yourself those rest times in between. Your mind needs it, you need it, and your sanity needs it.

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

MAE: Okay. Deep breath: enjoy where you’re at, right now. There will always be another hurdle to jump over, another mountain to climb. You find an agent, and you’ll be worried about selling your manuscript. You sell your manuscript and you’ll be worried about earning out your advance. I’ve never experienced it, but I’m sure people who make The New York Times bestseller list worry about writing their follow up.

There will always be something else on the horizon. And you’ll never find the energy to push through whatever is next unless you acknowledge all of your accomplishments along the way.

I am spectacularly bad at this, so that is what I wished I had known. Big victories are just the slow build of lots of smaller, less exciting ones.

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

MAE: I’ve just finished my first round of book edits, so I don’t have any cover info or jacket copy yet! But the tentative pub date is June 19, 2018. I’ve got an email list that you can hop on, to get more info when I’ve got it and I’ll be revealing news over on my Instagram as I get updates. The book is also up on Goodreads, if that’s your thing.

What’s next for you?

MAE: Right now I’m on my second round of edits for my short story “Be Cool, For Once” that’s coming out in We Need Diverse Books’ YA anthology—LIFT OFF. I went kind of old school with it—one night at a concert to see if a nerd and a jock can fall in love. Plus there’s hijinks, a girl who just wants to science, and references to Anne Boelyn. That’s going to be published in Summer of 2018 as well!

I’m also a huge film nerd—I’ve got a draft on the backburner where I get to incorporate that into a character. The Paris Gellar/Rory Gilmore ship from Gilmore Girls keeps popping back into my mind, thanks to the revival. I can’t stop thinking about two ambitious young women falling in love as they fight to make their own futures.

Congratulations once again, Mae! Thank you for sharing your journey with us, and best of luck with the publication of NOT THE GIRLS YOU’RE LOOKING FOR. We’re all excited to see it hit shelves! Readers, you should add her book to your Goodreads shelf right here, plus follow her on Twitter and check out her Instagram and sign up for updates — DO IT ALL.

[The original interview follows.]

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

MAE: QUEENS OF THE WILD is my ode to complicated young women, mean girls, and bad decisions. To me, mean girls have always been ambitious young women who were told to divert their expression of that drive into the least healthy avenues: through their looks, over boys, and into popularity. I wanted to look at those girls from the inside out, and to see if they could find healthy ways to express their creativity, their loyalty, and their ambition. I also wanted it to be a book that, to paraphrase the great Shonda Rhimes, normalized the world around us. So Lulu and her friends are reflective of that. Marginalized young women particularly get the short end of this stick—needing to be likeable as women and unthreatening as a member of a minority group. I think I must call on the patron saint of angry girls when I write. Even when I try to go sweet, I just see that kernel of anger inside and I'm drawn to trying to understand it.

Also, QUEENS is a kissing book, because unlike Fred Savage, I love kissing books. And I love all forms of love. So I explored themes of romantic, platonic, and familial love throughout the story.

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

LAUREN: QUEENS OF THE WILD ticks just all my boxes [Complicated friendship and family dynamics! Feminism! Sexuality! Dynamic, diverse, realistically flawed characters! Kissing!]. I fell for it on a dozen fronts, but mostly because the writing is so gorgeous I wanted to wallow in it. For example, there is a moment early on where the main character is thinking about all the boys she has kissed and how her nemesis with a similar track record gets to have the high ground because he is a boy, while she is “stuck in a muddy, swampy, wide-open field of girlhood” which is just so deeply evocative.

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

MAE: I always start with character. As I work out a character, I invariably find the story inside of that person. Writing outlines can be helpful, but I often end up disregarding them in the writing process. Since I'm so character driven in my approach, I've found that even when I want a character to do something, I know when they wouldn't (or they tell me they wouldn't and refuse to do as I say, the jerks). And that's when the outline goes out the window.

This means my first drafts are messier and less tight in terms of plot, compared to someone who does outline. I do better refining what's there, rather than superimposing the structure. I like to think that some writers are architects who build with frameworks and scaffolding, and some of us are sculptors who have to hack away at large pieces of marble, trying to find the best lines underneath. I'm definitely a sculptor.

I do work with deadlines, because without them I'd have no sense of urgency. Critique partners are great, not just because you have a fresh pair of eyes looking at your work, but because the more you look thoughtfully at someone else's writing, the more you learn to come to you own work with that outsider perspective.

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

MAE: My experience was fantastic! The best part was how the participants were so encouraging of one another. Everyone was rooting for each other and cheering one another along. Everyone participating really understood that we're all on the same team with this one. My expectations were to get my pitch out there, to see what kind of agent interest there was, and to meet some great writers. The event definitely met those expectations and then exceeded them about tenfold.

How was the experience for you, Lauren?

LAUREN: I loved it! I did an insane amount of travel in April and May so I had to reign myself in and didn’t favorite quite as many pitches as I would have liked to otherwise, but I was incredibly impressed with everything I saw and I cannot wait until the next one. I’d had some reservations about twitter pitch contests before this, but I’m absolutely a believer now.

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

MAE: Three things. First, I read that the guys at Upworthy write a headline 25 times in order to get to the clickiest one. Feel free to groan, but drafting 25 tweets absolutely works. Also, I ran these by friends to get a sense of what they would click. Shoutout to my poor friend Rachel who read about eight versions of each tweet. She's a real trooper.

Second, play to your strengths. I got a lot of traction for using polls and gifs. Since I use gifs even when chatting with friends, this was already second nature to the way I communicate. If you're better at ramping up drama than telling a joke, go with that. You're going be more memorable in your own way, rather than in somebody else's.

Third, have at least one tweet that plays by all the rules. I had a lot of fun with form and structure in my pitches, but I made sure I had one tweet that was what everyone says to do—hook, stakes, conflict, main character, correct hashtags—and frankly this was the tweet that got the most agent response. I think the creative tweets drove agents to my profile page, where they found the tweet that showed them that I knew what I was doing. Break the rules, just make sure people can see that you do know what the rules are.

Bonus tip: if you're based on the West coast, use a scheduler like Buffer. That way you don't have to get up at 5AM when the event starts, but also aren't missing those early morning hours you could be throwing your pitches in the ring.

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

LAUREN: Definitely try a few different pitches throughout the day. If you have enough characters, I found the pitches that included genre and other tags especially helpful. (#own, #ya, #lgbt #edgy etc). And take a look at your Twitter bio before the contest. Because I was trying to be careful about how many pitches I favorited, a few times I clicked through to see Twitter bios to see if there was anything there that would swing me one way or another.

Tell us about The Call, Mae!

MAE: Honestly, I was so nervous before the call. But as soon as Lauren started talking, I was put immediately at ease. Talking with her was like chatting with a good friend. She talked about her work and what she loved in my manuscript, yes. But we also just riffed on books and pets and life. We even got into what we thought fiction could do, on a meta level. That to me was so special: finding someone I respect professionally that I also connected with on a personal level. Lauren also totally understood what I was doing with my manuscript from the get go. When you write messy, angry girls, a lot can get lost in reader translation. Her vision for QUEENS was the same as my own. I knew I was in good hands from that point on.

Give us the pitch that hooked your agent!

MAE: “Lulu Saad is a Bad Muslim. And now, thanks to her big mouth, she's a bad friend. If only she were a good groveler. #OWN #DVpit #YA”

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

LAUREN: I was especially looking for #ownvoices so that was appealing, but “Bad Muslim” and “bad friend” were what sold me. YA fiction is a really interesting and safe way for readers to interrogate the world, and this pitch seemed to promise that the book would be concerning itself with interesting questions: what makes a “good” Muslim or a “good” friend?

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?

LAUREN: I love unique twists on familiar plots, tropes or genre conventions and I’m drawn to characters that are fallible and messy. I’m always searching for books like QUEENS OF THE WILD that chew over absorbing questions and have something to say about the world.

I’m pretty open to all the sub genres of YA and MG, and I’m definitely still looking for #ownvoices.

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

Aminah Mae Safi is a writer who explores art, fiction, feminism, and film. Her short story, "Be Cool, For Once," will be featured in WNDB Young Adult Anthology LIFT OFF, after winning the 2016 We Need Diverse Books Short Story Contest. She lives in Oakland, CA with her partner and a cat bent on world domination. Find her on Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and Snapchat.

Lauren MacLeod is a literary agent with The Strothman Agency. She represents the agency’s foreign rights as well as YA and MG fiction and nonfiction, adult narrative nonfiction and the occasional highly-polished novel. She lives in Nashville, TN with her spouse and a well-meaning but ill-behaved dachshund assistant. She tweets under @Lauren_MacLeod.