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Success Story Interview - Dannie M Olguin

An Interview with Dannie M Olguin (danniemolguin on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent Tina Schwartz of The Purcell Agency, LLC.


QT: Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it?
Dannie M Olguin:
A line from BETWEEN SAFE AND REAL hit me smack upside the head one day as we were shopping. "We were at Ikea the day Mama lost her damn mind." I had no context for it, but that was the first seed of the idea. I thought that would be the first line of something, but I just wasn't sure of what.

Over the next several months, pieces of the story came to me. Zoe, my MC, told me her name and that she needed to tell her story of living in poverty with an abusive mother and an absent father. It's told in the form of two diaries, each with a different voice that tells different version of her day-to-day. Zoe knows Mama reads The Safe Diary, so she sugarcoats everything in that one. The Real Diary is where she talks about the real stuff that's going on with her. The more she writes in each diary, the less the line between what's a safe fabrication and a dangerous reality becomes, and she starts to question her own sanity.

This is the book I needed as a child. Like Zoe, I dealt with poverty, abuse, and fear. BETWEEN SAFE AND REAL is a complete work of fiction, but I did take inspiration from my own life.
QT: How long have you been writing?
Dannie M Olguin:
In second grade, my beautiful teacher, Ms. Mimi Larson, had us write one short story about a famous monster, like The Werewolf or The Mummy, every week. The class rule was, if you didn't finish your story, you couldn't go to gym. Naturally, I never finished my stories on time, and Ms. Larson let me stay in the class all by myself to finish my story every week. She even supplied me with more paper when I ran out. After a handful of stories, she bound each of ours books with yarn and laminated construction paper covers. Monster Gallery was my first book, and I loved it. We moved around an awful lot, but I always kept Monster Gallery with me. Often, there was no paper at home, so I'd use the backs of my monster stories to write other stories. I actually lost a few of those stories that way, and that makes me indescribably sad, but I did what I had to do to survive in the moment.
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
Dannie M Olguin:
I started this book in Spring 2018 and finished it in Spring 2019 and started querying in May 2019. Then, I actually got an R&R from Tina, my agent now, in August 2019. I sent the revision to her on Oct 30, which is the date I consider the book finished. what is that? Like a year-and-a-half, I guess?
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
Dannie M Olguin:
I felt like giving up quite frequently. My family went through a lot of rough times in that year-and-a-half, and I battled some serious depression and suicidal ideation. Telling Zoe's story was incredibly painful because it brought up a lot of my own wounds. There were entire weeks when I couldn't find the strength to keep writing, but Zoe wouldn't stop telling me that she was counting on me. I couldn't stop thinking that whatever was happening to her when I stopped writing, she was stuck in that exact situation until I wrote her out of it again.

My husband and son were rocks for me and gave me all the time I needed to write. And of course, my group of writing friends and critique partners. I'm lucky that I have people in my life who love me and were able to recognize the value and importance of my story.
QT: Is this your first book?
Dannie M Olguin:
Not by a long shot. I queried my first book when I was 15 or 16. I wrote the whole thing in pencil and then typed it up on a cheap typewriter my parents gave me for Christmas one year. After I typed up all 100 pages, I mailed it off to exactly one publishing house. I don't recall which house I sent it to. I basically just picked a place out of an outdated Writer's Guide that I borrowed from the library. I actually got a very kind, personalized rejection encouraging me to keep practicing and to submit again when I was older. At the time, I couldn't see what a true gift that was, and I was heartbroken. All I saw was a letter telling me I wasn't good enough. I really, really wish I had kept that letter so I could write to that house and thank them for that kindness.
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
Dannie M Olguin:
Other than a few creative writing courses in college, no.
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
Dannie M Olguin:
Yes and no. Each book is different and life-circumstances requires flexibility. Basically, I like to get up, do yoga, journal, and then write. When I was working, I was getting up at 4:15 every morning to get my words in before I had to be at work at 6:30. I'm not currently working, so I can be more relaxed with my schedule.
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
Dannie M Olguin:
Probably about 3.
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
Dannie M Olguin:
Yes. I used to think books were written in a vacuum, but now I understand that books need betas and critique partners. What I know about my own process, though, is that I cannot show anyone pages when I'd working on the first draft. If I do, I get caught up in the critiques and I end up in a revision-vortex and don't move forward.
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
Dannie M Olguin:
Pantser all the way. I wish I could outline. For some reason, I feel like writing from the hip is totally valid for other writers, but when I admit that's my process, I tell myself I'm less of a writer than someone who can outline an entire novel at the beginning. I know that's not at all true. Every writer, and every book is different. What matters is getting the damn thing written, regardless of pantsing or plotting.
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
Dannie M Olguin:
The first book I queried was in 2014, I think, and stopped after about 6 or 8 months. This one has been through about a year of querying, but with lots of pauses for revision and life circumstances in between.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
Dannie M Olguin:
My stats say 24, and that seems about right.
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
Dannie M Olguin:
Firstly, I looked for agents who rep YA and were open for queries. Next, I stalked their social media, Publisher's Marketplace, the comments here on QT, and devoured any interview I could find. For this book, because there are scenes of abuse and mentions of poverty, I made sure that the agents I queried didn't have an aversion to that kind of theme. There were a handful of agents that I would have loved to query that I simply didn't because I did my research and discovered my book would be a hard no for them.

I also queried agents I met and pitched in person at my local writer's conference. That's actually where I met Tina. I had a pitch session with her and she requested the full manuscript at that pitch session.
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
Dannie M Olguin:
Absolutely. I didn't go super crazy, but if I met an agent at a conference, I let them know. If it was a cold-query, I made sure to give some indication of why I think they'd like my book or why I was querying them. Just a sentence or two.
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
Dannie M Olguin:
Firstly, people are right when they say a writer needs to be a reader first. Read everything, including craft books. If there is any way you can manage to attend writing conferences or workshops, by all means, do it. Go and don't be shy. Reach out and make friends.The friends I made at DFWCon truly changed my life. In fact, I consider them family now. If you can't manage conference, try to find a local critique group or workshop. And if you can't find one of those, look for something online. Build up your professional support network because writing is hard. Editing is brutal. Querying is hell. You're gonna need your people. And finally, don't compare yourself to other writers. I was 43 when I landed my agent, and it seems like everywhere I looked, I was surrounded by 24-year-old bestselling authors. Or incredible indie authors who can crank out 10 damn good books a year. Or people who can outline a book in 2 weeks and then have a great draft done in a month. Don't waste your time or energy comparing yourself to anyone else. It'll only bring you down.
QT: Would you be willing to share your query with us?
Dannie M Olguin:
Sure. Here's the version that got me the most requests. I'm leaving an example of the personalization in there because reading successful query letters helped me write my own.

Query Letter:

Dear [Agent's Name],

I've been a Twitter fan of yours for ages and have wanted to query you with my last two books, but never felt I was quite ready. After listening to your interview on [NAME REMOVED] Podcast, I decided it was time to put my silly fears to bed and query you already. Because you've said that you're interested in unusual books that make you cry, I'm hopeful you'll consider BETWEEN SAFE AND REAL, a contemporary YA that is told in the form of two wildly different diaries written by the same girl.

Fifteen-year-old Zoe Wilkes has ninety-nine problems, and a boring life ain't one. With two hungry siblings, an empty fridge, and a violent mother to tip-toe around, Zoe can't slow down enough to catch a breath. When she discovers Mama's been reading her diary, Zoe realizes she can never write her true thoughts in that book again. Trouble is, if she stops writing entirely, Mama's sure to think she's hiding something, and will tear through her room like a tornado—again—to find out what it is. Her solution: continue writing safe entries in the first diary, while writing her real thoughts in a plain-old composition book.

As she writes in each journal, Zoe questions her own perceptions, and it's not long before she fears she's just as unstable as Mama. After all, the apple never falls far from the tree. If there's even a shred of truth to her safe journal, then maybe her real journal's just hot mess of made-up horrors. Thankfully, Zoe's new friends, Cheryl and Nate, help her find her power and get in touch with her reality.

Complete at 72,200 words, BETWEEN SAFE AND REAL is similar in theme to Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman and Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow. It will appeal to readers who seek to make sense of their own difficult family situations. While I'm not certain this qualifies as #ownvoices, as a child abuse and childhood poverty survivor, it's the book I needed as a kid. I am a member of online and in-person writers and critique groups and attend conferences regularly. In 2019, I co-taught a class at Dallas Fort Worth Writers Conference. In 2018, I was chosen to share a narrative nonfiction piece in front of 500 strangers at a true storytelling event. As an introvert with a fear of public speaking, this tops my list of Scariest Things I've Ever Done—and I taught my kid how to drive in Dallas!

Per agency guidelines, I've pasted the first 25 pages below my signature.

Thank you for your time and consideration,