How I Got My Book Deal, How Failing Helped

* I know I said my last post would be my LAST post, but I thought it would also be cool to share my first newsletter since it’s a Big Topic, and many of subscribers have already reached out to show their love for the post! Hope you enjoy it too 🙂

* * I won’t be doing this for every new newsletter I send out. This is really the only time, so the best way to get more content like this would be through subscribing!

* * * Apologies for literally copy and pasting my entire newsletter into my blog, but I just couldn’t part with my intro. Or my gifs.


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Welcome to my newsletter!

First off, thank you SO much for subscribing! I’m still trying to get the hang of this newsletter thing (and also still trying to recover from BEA/BookCon, RIP me), but once I do have a firm grasp on this, anticipate a monthly ramble on writing, publishing, life, news, and any other randomness that may come to mind!

And speaking of news:

I HAVE A BOOK DEAL!!!!!!!!!!!

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Yes, after months of carrying this secret, I’m STILL crying about it.

And in more cool news: you can also already add the book on Goodreads now!! The longtime reader in me who has spent way too much time on Goodreads over the years is still flipping out and will probably never get over seeing THIS:

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But before I get carried away in all my flails and feels and screaming, a promise is a promise. Here’s the story of how it happened and how it certainly didn’t happen alone or overnight. It’s a continuation of my How Failing Helped series that started with my How I Got My Agent, How Failing Helped post.

Unsurprising disclaimer: yup, I failed once more. But this time, I took away something a little bit different than before—a story I hope anyone who has ever faced failure, felt stuck, or has been rejected can take comfort in, because all those factors can make this already difficult journey feel that much more lonely. But we’ve all been there, and you are not alone. Far from it.

So, without further adieu….


“He who wants a rose must respect the thorn.”

–Persian Proverb

March 2017

A year after I had signed with my agent with the book of my soul, The One, I was still revising it. In fact, I had just gotten another heavy round of feedback notes from my agent saying that my book would require yet ANOTHER rewrite on top of all the ones I’d already done, because I just could not get this story down. Because something was not working. With the book, with me.

Again.

Rather than go for a heaping glass of wine to cry into, I decided to have some tea. And with it came a surprisingly timely message.

The saying stuck with me so much that I literally stuck it on my computer that night to keep it within my view always. To remind myself that to get anywhere or accomplish my goals, I must accept that failure is a part of the process.

Failure has become more like a friend, actually. She’s constantly with me wherever I go, involved in whatever I’m doing. She frustrates me to no end, but she also humbles me, reminds me of why I do certain things or why I’m not ready for them, and she always, always comes into my life for a reason.

The first time I queried, I failed.

The first time I revised with my agent, I failed. Again and again.

And the first time I went out on submission to editors, I failed. Again and again and again.

While there were wonderful victories in between which I absolutely do not discount (I finished revisions! I finally got to put my work out there! My awesome agent and I worked together through all the ups and downs like a team!), none of those successes could’ve ever been achieved without a whole lot of failing.

Let’s rewind back again to 2016 to mid-2017.

I was revising the book of my soul known as Pirate Fantasy with my agent, and it was…well, it was definitely a process. It was a year and a half of rewrite upon rewrite, overhaul upon overhaul. False starts and Act 2 woes galore. My brilliant agent put in just as many reads and work into this book as I did, and I count myself extremely lucky to have someone who would go that far into revisions and always challenge me to make the story stronger. I was unemployed at the time, so I could take on every revision round by the horns with minimal distractions; but in that period, I also felt constantly dejected the farther away submission seemed, and the more I felt stuck in the same exact place.

I was failing.

I was failing at revisions. I was failing my agent. I was failing my family who questioned how I could possibly still be revising. I was failing my grandmother, for whom I wrote this story which spurred me to pursue publication after she had passed. I was failing my friends and readers by not moving forward with a book everyone swore would sell gloriously fast and become A Thing.

Spoiler alert: after over four years writing/revising Pirate Fantasy on my own, with CPs, and then with my agent, it did not.

Enter: Disappointment. Despair. Depression.

And Terror.

The writing career I’d thought was within reach had flown thousands of galaxies beyond me. The years I’d put into one book were years I would never get back. And that book, the one thing which I’d poured my soul, grief, and self into over the years, would amount to nothing but a shelved casualty on my computer.

Needless to say, I was devastated. My heart was broken. And my dreams of Pirate Fantasy becoming a book-shaped thing were being crushed before my very eyes.

I had come this far, only to get this far.

I knew publishing was not a meritocracy, but I hoped I had proven myself to appease the writing gods. I knew there was a chance my book wouldn’t be acquired for various reasons, and yet I still held onto the fantasy of it selling as I’d so often envisioned in my head. Because I hoped I had worked hard enough, and failed plenty enough times, to deserve the success.

Plot twist of life: all the hard work in the world cannot guarantee success. All the time in the world spent working on a book does not necessarily mean it will sell. I knew this. Everyone in publishing cautions it, and I certainly learned it firsthand from the fail that was my first first book. But it’s hard to find reason and comfort in those lessons when you’re lost in certain trenches of the writing process, and all is not well.

For me, the toughest part about being in those submission trenches was how heavy it felt wading through them. How rejection can stab and silence can crack the armor you’d been building for times like this. How you’ll have good days of forgetting you’re even carrying that weight of waiting, and bad days when it becomes all too sharp on your shoulders.

Around the time I went out on sub with Pirate Fantasy, I finally found a job in publishing that I adore, which also served as a great distraction from constantly checking emails and thinking about my book’s fate on sub. Or so I thought.

I’m still FOREVER grateful that I got my job around that time (and that I got a job, period). But let me tell you: those first few months of adjusting were even harder than I thought they would be. I wasn’t able to write because I was dead tired and too pressured by that weight of submission. And along with the stress of trying to acclimate and stay positive in this new position, I’d be receiving email strings of editor rejections that left me quietly reeling during office hours. A particularly rough close call with an editor in the middle of the work day left me in such a bad place that I pretty much spent my lunch break in a bathroom stall crying. The general consensus was that bad luck/timing, subjectivity, and summer publishing created the perfect storm for Pirate Fantasy’s demise on sub. And let’s be real, maybe—even after all of those revisions, rewrites, and overhauls—the book was just not the strongest it could be, still.

Why am I telling you all of this?

Not for pity or sympathy or to give the impression that I had the roughest sub experience ever (everybody’s time in the trenches is different, but in comparison to other writers, I know I am lucky and that I had it easier than most). If anything, I’m just trying to paint an honest picture of my time on submission because it’s OK/normal to feel lost and overwhelmed, and to give you an idea of what my Writing Rock Bottom of 2017 looked like.

Because, spoiler alert: I wrote my way out.

Of all of these setbacks and sorrows, the most cutting loss to me was in losing the joy of writing. Writing, which had been my source of joy and peace and identity, had become associated with rejection and book deals and self-loathing. It’s a scary state to be in, a writer not being able to write—it’s like losing a large piece of your spirit and your heart, one of the most integral parts that makes you you.

At that point, I knew not even an email from my agent saying “LOOK A HUMONGOUS BOOK DEAL!” could’ve fixed everything for me. Gratification would not mend what had clearly broken inside. Along the way, I’d lost sight of why I wanted to get published in the first place, which I realized had been the true root of the chaos all along. And while I couldn’t control a lot of what was going on in the other parts of my life, I could begin healing myself in that respect by getting back up and trying again. Not for a deal or to advance my career, but for me.

The first step began with opening up a first draft of a book I’d been working on since 2014, a story which I LOVED but only ever had pockets of time to work on when I wasn’t revising Pirate Fantasy.

I called this story Phantom Fantasy. I also referred to it as my “fun project,” as it was a combination of so many things I loved—Phantom of the Opera, Moulin Rouge, Night Circus, romance!—and I always felt that joyous, heart-racing rush while drafting it. I’d learned a lot from revising Pirate Fantasy in terms of storytelling, which somehow translated into a clearer, stronger, not-so-horrible-almost-finished first draft of Phantom Fantasy that had been hanging over my head for years.

The moment I decided to buckle down and finish this book was the moment I stopped feeling sorry for myself. I stopped moaning about submission being awful. I stopped aggressively checking my email and praying that my agent would send me a morsel of anything. I even stopped crying when the rejections still kept rolling in.

Because suddenly it didn’t matter. For the first time in a long time, I was writing for fun. I was writing for me. I was writing an unapologetically ambitious, bold heroine who, in the face of rejection, rose even higher—and her fire soon became my strength. I was writing for my writer self, to prove to her that she could write and would, even in the darkest times. That she had so many stories inside of her to fall in love with, just waiting to be told.

In this wonderful rush of words, it dawned on me that if I could fail with one story and find my joy again in another, then I was going to be okay. No matter what, I had all the tools inside me to get back up and try again. As many times as I needed to.

March 2018

Just like when I’d first entered the submission trenches, news for the second time around came during the middle of the work day. I was in my cubicle, about to turn on a podcast and throw myself into some task when suddenly, I got a call. My agent’s caller ID flashed across the screen, and I immediately thought she had butt-dialed me because she never calls out of the blue.

Not unless…

My heart actually quaked in my chest, and for a second, I furiously argued with myself that it wasn’t. That it couldn’t be. That I was hallucinating.

Time slowed in that moment, and my agent’s caller ID still lit up the screen. On a deep breath, I took the call, already running out the door so that no one could see me scream in either excitement or despair, but I did neither. As soon as my agent said, “We have an offer!” I practically face-planted in my office’s entrance area. Our secretary must’ve gotten a real kick out of it since I was not subtle about my breakdown whatsoever. I somehow crawled out the door to prevent further embarrassment, but it turns out, all the pedestrians in Boston decided to take a nice walk along our sidewalk just so they could witness all my sobby, snotty, incoherent glory.

We have an offer.

For months, I’d worked my ass off with Phantom Fantasy, knowing full and well that there was a good possibility it would not sell as was the case with Pirate Fantasy. And yet, in the preceding months before, I worked harder than I’d ever worked on anything. 4am writing sessions before work, revising and drafting on my commutes, using every bit of energy and hour on the weekdays and weekends to getting my submission package that much closer to sub ready.

The writing fire had returned with my muse, and I rode that wave for this book that had swiftly become the passion project of my dreams. Not because I was super confident it would sell or anything, but for a reason I think is best summed up by this quote from the hardworking genius of our generation himself, Lin-Manuel Miranda:

“…you can’t control the success or the failure of a thing you work on. You can only control the thing you work on. And so I try to let my decisions be guided not by what I think will succeed or fail, but what I’m going to learn from the process.”

No expectations, no guarantees, nothing.

Which is why when my agent called me with News, I absolutely panicked. I was so sure she was joking. I actually don’t remember much about the conversation, other than my agent was calmly breaking down the offer information while I just kept thinking: this can’t be real, this can’t be real, this can’t be real, this CAN’T be real.

Phantom Fantasy had an offer, from a dream editor at a dream imprint at my favorite publishing company. That editor, who had loved Pirate Fantasy when it had been subbed to her before but couldn’t buy it, believed in Phantom Fantasy and me so much that she put an offer on our proposal barely a month since we’d gone out on submission with it.

By the end of the week, the editor and I hopped on a phone call. I may or may not have rapped the entirety of “My Shot” to myself in a private office room because I was so horribly nervous beforehand, but the call went so great because this editor is wonderful (and very wonderfully did not question all of my awkward pauses which were prolonged by trying-not-to-hyperventilate breathing and silently OH-MY-GODing to myself). As soon as I heard her warm enthusiasm about her wanting to work with me, about what this book could be in her hands and with the support of everyone in this imprint, I felt the rightness of it all in my gut already.

The week after, we virtually shook hands and sealed the deal.

And just like that, I was going to become a published author.

There are moments when I still think it was all a dream, because I HAVE had book deal and contract dreams before that felt so real until I’d wake up. And I have to admit, most times I fear the same might happen any moment now.

The thing about failing a lot is that when you finally do win a battle, big or small, it’s almost too unbelievable to be true. Like muscle memory, you knew how to keep getting back up whenever you were knocked down, but the moment you stop getting knocked down it’s…strange. Different. Something I’ll never get used to, from the setbacks that had come before.

But failure, as it turns out, was not the roadblock I’d once thought it to be.

Had I not failed with one book, I would not have felt the soul-deep need to write the next one.

Had I not failed with my past revisions, I would not have gained all the skills I’d accumulated that made revising the next time so much more efficient.

Had I not failed in the submission trenches before, I would not have been mentally and emotionally prepared to re-enter them again with a different book and a healthier mindset.

Had I not failed with Pirate Fantasy, I would not have Phantom Fantasy and all that it means to me today, as the story that brought back my light. It probably would still be that unfinished first draft sitting in my computer, collecting dust.

Looking back now, failure to me isn’t really failure. Depending your approach, it’s a life-defining moment. It’s a chance. It’s a thorn we must respect on our way to the rose.

I know this is still only the beginning, and there are still many roses to reach for, as well as many thorns. True success never comes without them, and looking back, I’ve only genuinely begun to start seeing why.

This is not the first book I’ve ever written. It’s not the book I signed my agent with. And it’s not my first book on sub, either. And that’s perfectly okay. I’m not an overnight success, I am years in the making and still a work in progress with so much to learn and experience.

But overall, I am proud to have failed and stumbled my way up, over the years, all the way here. And I am proud to say that my wonderful Phantom Fantasy, officially titled WHERE DREAMS DESCEND, will be my debut novel, the first book in my Kingdom of Cards duology edited by Vicki Lame and published by Wednesday Books.

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I know they say to save the gratitude for the Acknowledgements, but I have so many people that I just want to thank for how they’ve helped me get to this stage I never thought I’d ever reach.
Thank you to Thao Le, for all the ways you go above and beyond the agent’s call of duty. So lucky to have you in my corner.
Thank you to my lovely editor (!!!), Vicki Lame, for taking a chance on me and this story. I’m SO excited to work with you, begin this adventure, and make some bookish magic!
Thank you to my family: my siblings, Lia, Chino, Nina, and Joseph, for always being there for me in and for understanding my frenzied style of work that usually involves me being a hermit; and Mama and Papa, who always supported me, and never once doubted that this dream would come true. I love you all.
Thank you to Roshani Chokshi, for all the wisdom, real talk, and critiques. And big thanks to some of my favorite publishing peeps, Julie C. Dao and Patrice Caldwell, for the endless support, encouragement, and inspiration over the years.
Thank you to my Writing Cult, my group of friends who are the best in every single way: Erin Bay, Akshaya Raman, Maddy Colis, Katy Pool, Axie Oh, Meg Kohlmann, Amanda Haas, Mara Fitzgerald, Ella Dyson, Kat Cho, Christine Lynn Herman, Melody Simpson, Tara Sim, Amanda Foody, Claribel Ortega, Ashley Burdin, and Alex Castellanos.
Special shout out to Erin Bay, my beloved CO-G for life. I could not have written this Phantom Book without my fellow Phantom fan. You knew this story was something special before I even did, and I can’t thank you enough for your friendship and excitement and constant texts/emojisplosions.
Of course the list of who to thank is ENDLESS and I wish I could thank everyone in the community who helped shape me as a writer in all the ways friends could. But if you’ve made it to the end of this LONG post (sorry!), thank you. For sticking with me, bearing with me, and hopefully, for staying along for the ride with me. It wasn’t an easy road before, and it doesn’t get any easier from here—but I feel ready for this new leg in the journey, and having my people by my side is a big reason why ❤

Oh wow that was long. For context, I wrote this post a while ago (months of secret-keeping make for months of preparation) mostly as a way to process. And mostly to ensure this post would not be pure gibberish, since a lot of what’s happened post-announcement has made me incoherent in the best ways possible.

The best thing of all has been hearing from people who’ve followed me online for a while, who even came up to me at BEA just this past week, to say how wildly excited they are for this book and me. Being able to write up a post like this means the world, but having those lovely interactions and seeing the enthusiasm already means even more.

So once again, I thank you all for subscribing, for being excited, and for following/continuing to follow me! If there is anything specific you want me to cover on my newsletter, feel free to reach me wherever on social media (I am EVERYWHERE), and I can’t wait to catch you all again on this space next month 🙂

Love,

Janella

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