Alyssa and Jessica, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview and congratulations on your partnership! To start, Alyssa, I’d love to know more about your book and why you wrote it.
ALYSSA: My book is MARTIN MCLEAN, MIDDLE SCHOOL QUEEN, and it is a contemporary middle grade novel that centers on Martin, a quiet seventh grader who struggles with expressing himself. After he suffers a panic attack in school following a homophobic remark from the class bully, Martin’s mom invites his Uncle Billy, a drag queen, to come and stay. Martin falls in love with the fabulous world of drag, but no one outside his family knows. When Martin discovers that his first-ever drag show is on the same night as the all-important Mathletes regional tournament, he realizes his secret won't be safe for long. For Martin to pull off both appearances, he needs the help of his friends and family to channel his inner drag superstar. Through his confident drag alter-ego, Lottie León, Martin finally finds his voice.
For me, MARTIN started as a reflection upon the lack of queer characters in the children’s literature I had in middle school and high school. I didn’t read a queer character until I was in my late teens, and even then, those characters were often played as stereotypes and for laughs. I now identify as a bisexual woman, but back then, I didn’t even know bisexual was something a person could be. I wondered: What would my journey of growing up and self-knowledge have been like if I had queer characters in my books as a middle schooler?
I was also a theater kid, and the performing arts were a major influence in shaping who I am. It was a way to express myself without having to be myself — it was freeing, empowering.
Those elements laid the groundwork for MARTIN, in addition to my longtime love of drag. In late summer of 2017, I started seeing viral videos of very young drag queens performing on stage with the support of their parents and the drag community. I knew immediately that I had to write about a “middle school queen.” Because drag has inextricable ties to the Black and Latinx communities, it was important to me that my main character be reflective of that, and so my precious, fabulous, mixed-race, Afro-Cuban-Irish Martin was born!
Jessica, what was it about this manuscript that sealed the deal for you?
JESSICA: The special ingredient in MARTIN MCLEAN MIDDLE SCHOOL QUEEN that made me want to work with Alyssa was her engaging and unique voice. Alyssa’s writing voice is a winning combination of laugh-out-loud humor (the names of the drag queens and kings are just *chef kiss*) and big-hearted emotions. Her writing feels effortless, ironically a testament to all the hard work she’s put in, and the way she is in tune with each of her characters’ distinct personalities made them come to life in her manuscript.
Alyssa, how did you prepare this manuscript for submission? Do you work with outlines, schedules, or deadlines? Do you have critique partners and beta readers?
ALYSSA: I didn’t start out with an outline for MARTIN; I think I’m a pantser with some planner tendencies. I knew what the hook of the story would be, the main conflict, and I had a very clear picture of the final chapter or so. That was it! As far as schedules or deadlines, I started MARTIN in September 2017, then committed to finishing it as a NaNoWriMo novel that fall. I finished the first draft on November 26, 2017, at 45,000 words.
Then, so much rewriting and editing! I used Lori Summers’s “The Scrub” process, which is essentially printing the manuscript and using pen and paper to identify major issues, make notes, etc. It’s a broad strokes sort of thing. After The Scrub, you fully rewrite the manuscript, starting from a blank document. It was painful, and absolutely necessary to the manuscript. I did two Scrubs before I started sharing with my two beta readers. In the future, though, I’d absolutely use critique partners — I’m actually using critique partners now, as I work on my second manuscript.
I should note that the process of submitting to agents was equally important to preparing the manuscript. After receiving rejections from several agents who cited the same issue, I was able to use their feedback to re-evaluate the manuscript. I took some time away from querying to think about their comments and suggestions — Were they changes I actually wanted to make, because I think they’d make the book better? Or was I feeling pressure to make the changes because I wanted so badly to land an agent? In the end, I chose to make the changes, and it is that manuscript that earned me nine full requests and, ultimately, my lovely agent!
And how was the #DVpit experience for you, overall? Expectations? Doubts? Disappointments?
ALYSSA: I had done #DVpit before, as well as #PitMad, and hadn’t gotten much traction. I learned a lot through those processes, including how to better market my book in a line or two. If I hadn’t “failed” (I use that word for lack of a better one; nothing from which you learn is a failure!) in those two contests, I probably wouldn’t have had the experience to craft the pitch that ultimately got Jess’s attention.
To be perfectly honest, I participated in #DVpit that fateful day on a whim! I was bored at work, feeling down about the rejections I had received on my full manuscript, and figured I had nothing to lose. I was shocked when my pitch started getting attention! And when Jess expressed interest, I knew almost immediately that she was The One — or at least, that I wanted her to be The One!
How was the experience for you, Jessica?
JESSICA: I’ve participated in #PitMad before (and still do) but the sheer volume of participants ultimately drowned out the voices and manuscripts I was on the search for (Latinx, Queer, MG!). When I learned about #DVPit, I marked it instantly on my calendar and couldn’t wait for the day. I'm glad there is a place where these manuscripts are given space to shine! I dipped in and out through the course of the day, searching through specific genre and age group tags that I was most interested in. I found Alyssa’s tweet right before I was going to call it quits! Honestly, seems like it was Fate.
Alyssa, did you receive pitch help or tips? Any words of wisdom you’d like to pass along to future participants?
ALYSSA: I don’t know that I received any specific help or tips during the process, but I did glean some things I’m happy to share with the next generation of #DVpitters! Shakespeare wrote that brevity is the soul of wit, and that remains true. Keep your pitch as tight as you can while still being as evocative of your book as you can be. I’d also say that, for #DVpit specifically but also for Twitter pitches in general, I’ve observed the most effective pitches to be the ones that clearly state what the diverse element is. Is your character of a certain race or culture? Do they identify as a certain sexuality? Are they disabled? Make sure that’s clear in the pitch. Agents and editors are looking for diverse books right now, and many of them have some specific details on their wishlist — so make sure they know your book has those elements! And finally, my favorite bit of advice, the one my boyfriend has been giving me throughout this whole process (and also before every dreaded treadmill workout): “Be tough.” I promise you can do this. Perseverance is key.
And Jessica, do you have any advice for querying authors and/or for anyone planning to participate in a future #DVpit?
JESSICA: To echo Alyssa’s advice, be as clear and succinct with your pitch as possible. Give us the hook. Boil down your manuscript to its most compelling elements. Also be sure to not only use #DVpit but to hashtag the age group, if it’s #ownvoices, what the genre is and what the diverse element is. There are agents out there looking for specific hashtags that they may personally relate to and you want those folks in your corner, reading your manuscript!
Tell us about The Call, Alyssa!
ALYSSA: My call story is wild. We had scheduled our call for the day I was flying home to Chicago following a week-long writing residency in Knoxville, Tennessee. I was racing against the clock to get off my plane and home before The Call! I was hauling ass through the airport, nervously sweating, shaking like a maniac. Jess actually doesn’t know this, but: when I took The Call, I was sitting in the passenger seat of my mom’s SUV, flying down the expressways of Chicago, with my mother holding my hand. It was actually an incredibly poignant moment to share with her; I had been dreaming on that conversation since I was a very little girl, and holding my mother’s hand while I heard the words “I’d love to represent you” is a memory I will hold close as long as I live.
And Jess just took my breath away with her deep understanding of what this book is, what it’s trying to do, and what it could be. She saw my vision in glorious Technicolor, not to mention the fact that she’s bright and hilarious and absolutely someone I could grab a glass of Pinot Grigio with. I could not have dreamed up a more perfect Call, or a more perfect first agent-author interaction.
Give us the pitch that hooked your agent!
ALYSSA: “ALAN COLE IS NOT A COWARD + DRAG TEEN, but make it #MG and Latinx: Introverted Martin is going to be a drag queen superstar. And an award-winning captain of his Mathletes team. And figure out how to find his confidence. And? He's going to do it all in one night. Gulp. #DVPit”
Jessica, what was it about this pitch that caught your attention?
JESSICA: What drew me so instantly to her pitch was that you got a sense of her writing voice from the few lines she wrote. I knew it was going to be fun and it was going to sparkle! (spoiler: it exceeded all expectations!)
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?
JESSICA: What I’m itching to acquire is a YA f/f rom-com or heartfelt contemporary, specifically nemeses to reluctant allies to love interests. There aren’t enough books with these kinds of tropes featuring protagonists who are LGBTQ+ and/or PoC! Give me them all! I’m also looking for more MG with subtle f/f like like interests across genres.
Warm congratulations to Alyssa and Jessica for finding each other! I’m looking forward to seeing where they go next. Follow them on Twitter so you can do the same!
Alyssa Zaczek is an author, playwright and professional journalist originally from Chicago, IL. Her work as a reporter for the USA Today network has taken her to St. Cloud, MN, where she now lives and writes. When she's not writing fiction for middle grade or young adult readers, you can usually find Alyssa in her happy place (the kitchen, cooking something bad for her), reading voraciously, or acting as Mom-slash-referee to her two deeply obnoxious rescue cats, Pip and Penelope. Follow her on Twitter: @AlyssaDZaczek.
Jessica Mileo has a BA in English Creative Writing from Binghamton University and a MS in Publishing degree from Pace University. She began her career interning everywhere from Writers House to Open Road. After starting her career in foreign rights at Janklow and Nesbit, she joined InkWell Management where she is actively building her list. Follow her on twitter @JessicaMileo