A #DVpit Success Story:
Interview with Karen Strong and Victoria Marini

** UPDATE: Karen Strong’s middle-grade book JUST SOUTH OF CURSED will be published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers! We are so delighted to have Karen back to answer a few follow-up questions about the deal, the book, and the experience since #DVpit.

Karen, 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!

KAREN: Thanks so much Beth! You know how much I love #DVpit and how much it’s helped me with first finding my agent and now with publishing my debut novel. I can’t even express how grateful I am for how all of this came together since #DVpit played such a crucial part in everything.

After signing with Victoria in June 2016, we buckled down for revisions. I loved the suggestions she had for the book. I knew it would be a lot of work but it would be focused work. It took me some time to figure out how I was going to re-vision this book but once I found the new path, I started the revision process in earnest in late August.

It took me about four months to revise the novel. Revision is a journey and I gave Victoria status updates of how everything was going. One thing I tried not to do was rush the revision process. I’m glad I was patient with myself as well as gentle. Being a writer means you have to deal with phases of self-doubt so it was important during this time to also practice self-forgiveness. Revision is hard work! As I continued to revise, I fell deeper in love with my characters and the story I was trying to tell. In the end, the revision made the book much stronger and gave it more depth.

Victoria was thrilled with the revision and I was SO relieved (haha). In February 2017, we started the submission process with editors. I decided it would be best to keep my mind occupied and start working on a new project. I wasn’t sure how long the submission process would take but I knew at the end of the day, I only needed one YES so I focused on that.

On an April night after a long grind at my day job, I was settling down to eat a too-big burrito when I got an email from Victoria. The email subject line just had the title of my book so I figured it was just a submissions update. I decided to eat my burrito first and read the email later. But then Victoria sent me a text asking if I received her email and so I was shocked when it was news saying Simon & Schuster wanted to acquire my book! Literally almost a year to the day of me posting my #DVpit tweets. Needless to say, I didn’t eat that burrito and ended up drinking champagne instead!

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

KAREN: The editors at Simon & Schuster have been so great and I love having their full support. I couldn’t have found a better place for my debut novel.

I could feel the genuine excitement from my acquiring editor Mekisha Telfer when we spoke on the phone. She told me how the book spoke to her on many levels since she had lived in the South—amazingly even in my hometown of Athens, Georgia.

For the editorial process, I’ll be working with Krista Vitola and Catherine Laudone who both have a deep passion for middle-grade. They’re thrilled to bring this story to readers and I can’t wait to work with them.

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

KAREN: #DVpit was a combination of timing and luck for me because I had a finished manuscript and a polished query. Now that #DVpit is more well-known and more successful, you want to make sure you have completed your manuscript. You don’t want to rush these things. I know it can be hard because you want a chance to query the participating agents but first you have to make sure your manuscript is ready to pitch. You don’t want to squander the opportunity. Some of the #DVpit successes have happened literally in days so you want to make sure you’re ready.

I would say be very honest with yourself. Don’t stress out if your manuscript isn’t ready for the next #DVpit event. Make a note of the participating agents to query later. All of these agents are looking for authors and so querying them through regular channels is just as effective as pitching in the event.

My overall advice: You want your manuscript to be in its best shape so when agents read your work, they’ll want to jump at the chance to represent you. This is where the magic happens and it’s worth the extra time and effort.

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

KAREN: I’m still in the very early stages, so I don’t have any cover art or pre-order links but my book is tentatively scheduled for Summer 2019. As soon as I do have more information, I’ll be sure to share on Twitter and my website!

What’s next for you?

KAREN: I’ll be starting my publication journey and working on the first round of edits. I’m so excited about these next steps and I can’t wait to share my debut novel with readers of all ages.

Congratulations once again, Karen! Thank you for sharing your journey with us, and best of luck with the publication of JUST SOUTH OF CURSED. We’re all excited to see it hit shelves!

[The original interview follows.]

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

KAREN: One thing I loved as a kid was reading scary stories. These books gave me nightmares but they were so worth it! Growing up, I didn’t read many books where black girls went on daunting adventures or dealt with creepy things. I was born and raised in the rural South and I still remember the dark folklore of curses and haints as well as how secrets can go back generations. My book favorites are anything with ghosts so I’ve always been drawn to writing these types of stories. Middle grade novels are my first love and I wanted to write a story with horror elements and touches of humor. I also wanted to write a main character who didn’t dwell on the societal pressures of being a black girl. Instead I wanted to write a story about a black girl solving a ghost mystery.

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

VICTORIA: It had a fabulous plot, and a wonderful voice, but I think the heart really captivated. Karen perfectly captured the core emotional experience of a young person coming of age with a real sense of generosity and warmth and a bit of spookiness.

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

KAREN: I always use an outline and I write in scenes. I also like putting my manuscript in the 3-act structure. My writer friend Phalia encouraged me to revise my middle-grade ghost story so I thought I would give it a shot for #DVpit and see what happened. She was one of the main reasons I entered the pitch contest in the first place. So I put all of the scenes in a spreadsheet and then based on her critique comments, I revised each scene in the manuscript in March and finished in early April.

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

KAREN: It was such a great experience for me. I’ve met so many wonderful writers who have been so supportive and we have formed a bond and fostered a community. To be honest, I had low expectations because I’ve never done a Twitter pitch contest before so I didn’t know what to expect. My goal was to get maybe 3 or so interested agents who I could query. I was shocked by the amount of interest I got from agents and the boosting I got from editors so #DVpit exceeded my expectations!

How was the experience for you, Victoria?

VICTORIA: It was fantastic. I only wish I had more free time to hover over all the pitches more aggressively. I’ll also say that it was enlightening for me personally to see the sheer volume of people and material that benefitted from a dedicated space for their voices and experiences.

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

KAREN: I did research on past Twitter pitch contests and I studied the ones that got 10 or more interested agents. I also read blog posts and followed #DVpit conversations on how to create captivating pitches. It’s a challenge to write a novel pitch in just 140 characters! I noticed the most successful pitches had comparisons. So I decided to create a comp pitch for agents to quickly get what my book was about. I created 8 pitches but the comp pitch was the one that got the most interest. As far as advice, I would say definitely stick to the main plot point, try to include your main character’s name and make sure you identify the age group and genre of your novel.

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

VICTORIA: I think the same advice that I’d give any querying authors and anyone planning to participate in any contest: do your homework. Research agents’ tastes, take a look at pitches, queries, and comp titles that have had success in the past or that piqued your interest. Deconstruct what makes them successful and learn how to apply those elements – a surprise hook, an interesting mash-up, a lively protagonist – to your pitch.

Tell us about The Call, Karen!

KAREN: Ah! The call. I had studied Victoria’s wish list and found that she loved middle grade books with a touch a magic and a dash of scary. Big factors that made her a top choice to query were her interest in cultivating underrepresented voices as well as her diverse client list. So when Victoria emailed me to schedule a call, I was so excited but also very nervous. After we started talking, I felt at ease immediately. She knew the business and she knew where my book fit in the market. I also loved her revision ideas and suggestions that could make the book stronger. After our initial conversation, I still had to talk with other interested agents but I was so impressed with Victoria that she was the one I chose as my agent.

Give us the pitch that hooked your agent!

KAREN: “BLACK-ISH + GOOSEBUMPS: Sarah & friends must use spunk and snoop skills to solve ghost mystery in Southern small town. #DVpit #MG #ownvoices”

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

VICTORIA: Karen pitched it as BLACKISH meets GOOSEBUMPS. What’s not to like? Two comps I love spliced together… it gets me every time.

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?

VICTORIA: I almost find it easier to say what I’m not looking for these days since most of the books I’ve come to love the most were ones I didn’t even know I was looking for! I’m not the best fit for romance, but I’m always on the hunt for a dash of magic or mayhem, whether it’s in fantasy, magical realism, or contemporary. Also, lately I got into the Netflix original show STRANGER THINGS (which reminded me how much I love those classic Spielberg-ian coming of age 80’s nostalgia-fests, GOONIES, E.T., STAND BY ME, etc) so anything that’s reminiscent of that show would be great!

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

Karen Strong (@KarenMusings) writes for kids and teens—focusing on black girls who explore the different realms of adventure and mystery with a dash of spooky. Her debut novel JUST SOUTH OF CURSED will be published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. For her musings about the fiction craft, write/life balance and writing inspiration, visit her website at www.karen-strong.com.

Victoria Marini (@LitAgentMarini) is a literary agent working with Middle grade, Young Adult and Adult fiction and non-fiction. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two tyrant-cats. When she’s not working or reading, she can usually be found coloring, binge-watching or dancing.