I wrote this bookish post** in January 2020, and it is now officially June 2020! I am now officially able to share my news since I signed my contract! It would be an understatement to say “A lot has happened these last few months.” Initially I had written “I know there are many struggling in light of Covid-19, and I pray you all are well.”
But when my grandfather got sick, and contracted Covid-19, and passed away last week, it was really hard. I think one of the hardest things was that with this disease, when you get it, you can’t have visitors and that felt really gut-wrenching for him to die without anyone by his side, when we have such a big family. I’ll remember his generosity and wit. I’m glad my grandfather is not in pain.
My grandfather was in critical condition in the ICU and when my grandmother wanted to visit, my uncle discouraged her from visiting as no visitors were allowed. She said she wanted to try to visit. It was her 62nd anniversary. When she got to the ICU, someone let her in and even put a chair out for her to sit by my grandfather. “It’s a gift!” my grandfather chuckled as they enjoyed the gift of time as they sat together uninterrupted for 2 hours. By her side, my grandmother said my grandfather prayed for all the grandchildren and children and relatives and they apologized for anything they’d done and reflected. Shortly after that, when he was diagnosed with Covid-19, visitors were strictly prohibited and quarantining took place. I’m grateful my grandmother got that time with my grandfather. Knowing my grandmother, I’m not surprised she managed to get in, and get a chair at that! Please continue to keep my family and especially grandmother in your prayers. I hope and pray all your loved ones heal asap and if they’ve passed that you find peace.
Also, my heart hurts for Black people in America right now. When I taught second grade in College Park, Georgia, all my students were black or people of color. You could tell a lot about someone’s reaction when I told them where I taught. I remember a dental hygienist telling me that teachers got paid more in that county because of teaching ‘those kids.’ Horrible! I’ve been in touch with a few of ‘those’ lovely students lately. I feel sad that they didn’t have an official graduation ceremony and sad that their world is in pieces and full of injustice. Something small I’ve been doing is retweeting books by black authors – please support and check in with your black friends, authors, students, teachers, etc.
**Here is my bookish news…
If you read my recent Twitter announcement, you may have seen that my Middle Grade verse novel UNSETTLED sold on auction and got a two offer book deal!
I can’t believe it and am honored to say the least. It is a lot to process. You may have questions to how, what, why, when, where…. Here are the details of this story!
I am a picture book author and didn’t really think of myself as writing for older children. However, after receiving feedback from a couple of editors for a picture book where something I wrote sounded like a chapter book, my first agent encouraged me to write for older children. I was a little reluctant initially but thought I would give it a try. So 4 years ago I started my novel. I knew I wanted it to be about an immigrant character like me.
First drafts are often very rough and mine was a tangle of thoughts, anecdotes, and memories. Desperate for feedback, I sent it to my agent in September of 2016 to see if I was on the right track and she said,
“I read a little of your MG and you’re doing great! I think we were right, and so were the editors, that you are more suited to write novels! The language is wonderful and I think you’re developing some great characters and ideas. I didn’t read all of it because it seems very raw still. It reads a little like a novel-in-verse, which could work, is that what you are thinking?”
I hadn’t really tinkered with novels in verse. I did enjoy reading them, but did not think much about writing my own. I shelved it for a while and checked out novels in verse. I loved how these books could be tender and tough and tackled deep topics.
All the while, I wanted to tell my story in the best way possible. At that time, it was told by multiple characters’ points of view and was written in clunkier prose.
I changed it up so that only Nurah was telling the story.
I deleted a couple characters including one called Mouseface (!!!).
I then took the most poetic and pretty words and started putting them in verse.
I loved the white spaces and how the words looked less cluttered.
The words breathed.
They looked happier in verse.
I loved adding a punch at the end of each verse paragraph. (In my mind, poetry always rhymed, so it feels weird to say verse poem!)
Still tackling a middle grade manuscript was much different from a picture book. There were so many words, a different voice altogether, and it was much more daunting.
I kept trying my hand at picture books and was glad to get 2 offers on 2 different picture book manuscripts.
All the while, I would be adding to my novel in verse on-and-off and sometimes taking breaks from it.
I was convinced it was a masterpiece and sent it to my agent in February 2019 who would I was sure happily send it off on submission when she said:
It continues to be lyrical and beautifully written.
Unfortunately, you’re still missing a story…a plot, with a beginning, middle and end. You (and Nurah) have described her life in the US so well. We learn about her friendships, her trials and more in your beautiful poetic snapshots. BUT, we don’t feel the arc of the story and we don’t get a sense of what she wants or aims for and we don’t see how her experiences in her new land have changed her. In short, you’ve written lovely descriptions but now you need to write a story which keeps the reader moving forward on Nurah’s trajectory.
How would you finish this sentence: This is a story about a girl who…
As it stands, I would say: This is a story about a girl who immigrates to the U.S.
I was stumped! Did I really have no plot? When I tried to finish the sentence, I would say, “This is a story about a girl who immigrates to the US from Karachi, Pakistan and learns what it feels like to be settled again.” Bingo!
Apparently, that was not enough.
Frustrated, I thrust the manuscript at my husband and begged him to read it – Did I really have no plot?
He read a few pages, admired the words, and said there were all these stars, but I somehow needed to make them into a constellation.
My husband doesn’t really read many fictional books, but was glad to get an outsider’s feedback. Having a story with no plot is the worst. I would recommend to every writer to create a proper outline prior to writing, something I had not done. However, I think for me, writing the story was the only way I knew where my plot was going!
I had all these plot threads that weren’t tied together. I thought I knew what my character wanted, but looking back, I didn’t know enough yet. I didn’t know what my character wanted and that was a big problem.
Frustrated, I again shelved the manuscript.
This was easy to do as I had many other projects I was tinkering with, and I had a toddler who was not yet 2 and two other school aged children. Life was BUSY.
I read many other verse novels. I adored Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga (a Newbery Honor Book!)) as it was the first time I had seen hijab depicted so beautifully in a middle grade book. I reached out to Jasmine Warga and felt re-inspired to keep trying.
Fast forward to July 2019. My agent amicably split with me and suggested I find another agent who was able to give me more feedback and inspiration, etc.
I sat down and printed out the story again and wove together more plot threads. My agent gave it a farewell read and said it was definitely much stronger and that she thought:
it will catch another agent’s attention, as it did mine, or even an editor’s attention and I will not be surprised to see in on the bookstore shelves in the next few years.
This gave me hope! In summer of 2019, I was on the search for a new agent. Knowing that I needed to polish the story as best as I could gave me the motivation to finish the story once and for all!
I reached out to my helpful critique partners. I also had my aunt Sana Dossul read and approve it. I also asked my husband Naoman Malik take a second look at my story, which he did on a cross-country flight, and texted me upon landing I had a constellation!
I paid attention to finer details, wove plot threads together, and tried to get to know Nurah better. In my first draft, Nurah hadn’t set foot in a pool. In my last versions, Nurah was an aspiring swimmer who wanted to stand out in the water yet blend on land. I knew what she finally wanted.
I queried hard! You can read the full agent querying story here, but I queried 18 agents, got 16 rejections, and 2 offers.
At that point, my mother even advised me that it was okay to take a break from all this querying (I would Whatsapp her the rejections from time to time!), and be happy with what I had already.
I was thinking of putting the story on the back burner and focusing on other projects when I got two agent offers. I signed on with Rena Rossner just a couple months ago in October 2019.
In November, Rena worked on my edits. Rena is a novel in verse author herself so it was a bonus to get her creative expertise.
In December, I was traveling to a family wedding and Rena had just sent my edits. When I asked her when she wanted them back, I was surprised to hear a week. I was thinking I would get them to her when inspiration hit. She did tell me I could take longer since I was traveling. Encouraged to send her the edits, but not willing to pack my clunky laptop, I instead worked on edits with a journal, inky pen, and pulled up MS Word on my phone and attacked the writing prompts where Rena had asked me to dig deeper into Nurah’s character. It was a much nicer way to edit than on my laptop.
Rena really wanted to get my novel out to editors before the holiday season hit. She had visited New York in November and actually had a couple of editors email her asking her if they could see my story. That was so exciting! So on December 10th we enthusiastically went on submission.
We got our first rejection just a few days later. I braced myself for all the future rejections we would get and that this story would never see the light of day …
But then 9 days after submitting, we actually got an email from an editor who did not want to waste any time in telling us how she liked what I had done with the novel and wanted to make an offer! I was on the way to pick up my children from school, when Rena called and told me we had an offer! My words were going to be a book. I was going to be an author of a middle grade book!
I told my grandmother Nana (my character’s grandmother is inspired by her!) who wrote me back on Whatsapp with her duas (prayers) saying:
I also sent the story to my immediate family and was relieved when my mother liked and praised it. My aunt Sana Dossul too had given it the first family read and enjoyed it as well. In this particular fictional novel, I see so much of my family and their immigrant experiences in my work so it was important to me that they were accepting and supportive of it.
The next day when Rena emailed the other editors to say we had an offer, I was surprised and thrilled when a couple days later, other editors expressed interest in the story as well. Mind-boggling! This was right before the holiday season was starting so Rena set a date in which we wanted to hear back from the others.
After the holidays, things definitely started to pick up. The book started to get editorial acquisition attention. At this point, I was shaking my head and my jaw dropped when I saw all the interest in my novel in verse (the one that was so rejected by all the agents!)
Rena advised me to speak to each editor to see which one I would like to work with, who shared the same vision as me, what edits would like etc.
Talking to the different editors was helpful. They were lovely and inspiring and each saw different tweaks to make. On January 16th, I talked to one editor at 11 am, one at 1 pm, and one at 3 pm. Luckily my husband was working from home that day so I managed to make the calls! I took notes (and doodled of course!) and hoped and prayed for a good decision.
At this point, we had 5 interested publishers were all planning to make an offer! This all happened very quick which led to Rena sending me an email with the subject ‘Crazy News…’ and that we were going to go to auction. The good thing about an author auction (I’m guessing this is for all author auctions), the author still has the ultimate decision to choose who they want to work with. If you want to work with the editor who made the lowest bid, simply because they share the same vision as you with edits, you can! If you want to work with the highest big editor, you can.
I didn’t expect the auction to be so crazy but it was. There was a lot of email checking at all times of the day. One editor backed out in the morning leaving it to 4 publishers. When the bids were very close, Rena asked for a final bid by 5 pm the next day. The whole day was stressful as there were no emails! I messaged Rena at 4:52 pm asking if we should just go with the last offer but she said not to worry – it wasn’t 5 yet. At 4:57 pm and 4:58 pm the 2 final bids came in!
The two bids were close and if I thought choosing an agent was hard, choosing a publisher is hard too. The auction happened on January 22nd, had a final harrowing bid on January 23rd, and I am thrilled to say we went with Harper Collins! Thank you to all the lovely publishers who offered and I hope our paths will connect later.
Thank you to my family (Amma Abba Hamzah Talha Osman, Peachtree City Family, extended family including Amena Asna Nana Khalajee, and BFFs Salma/Sarah Stoman) and the writing community ( middle grade critique partners (Vicki Wilson, Amy Board, Melissa Miles, Becky Goodman, Tresha Render) and author friend supporters ( Aya Khalil, Aisha Saeed, and Saadia Faruqi), Twitter #amwriting community!) for your support on this writing UNSETTLED journey!
Thank you to my agent Rena who plucked my story out from her slush pile of her inbox, saw the potential, and sent my story out with such energy and enthusiasm and excitement! And who stayed level-headed and calm throughout the auction.
This is what Rena said about my manuscript during editing time on November 28th when we were just about to go on submission two weeks later!
I love everything you’ve done and my suggestions are really small tweaks. I am so SOOOOO excited to go out with this. I fell in love with your writing from the start, but this re-read reminded me of every reason why I signed this project. Your words are breathtaking and gave me chills so many times I found myself reading parts of poems out loud to colleagues in the office! We are going to sell this, and I know exactly who wants to read it and who will read it quickly…
I’m very thankful for these book deals! It’s all been a crazy yet thrilling time and I’m really excited for the future. I know querying is hard, and being on submission is hard. The whole writing process is hard too! I think a lot of different factors just lined up for this manuscript and I hope and pray that each writer gets their words in a book.
More updates later and an inspiring quote below!