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Success Story Interview - Florence Chien

An Interview with Florence Chien (justMANGO on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent Mara Hollander of FinePrint Literary Management.


QT: Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it?
Florence Chien:
THE REVENANT OF SUROLIFIA is an adult political intrigue fantasy. A gendarme coping with chronic migraines will overthrow the Empire of Colors. A thief with a heart of gold and a record of dooming his partners will reclaim his throne. To succeed, they must kill each other. To liberate their silver-eyed kin from persecution and slavery, they must find a way to work together.

All the fantasy books I grew up with were hero-versus-villain and I really wanted something that's structurally different. And as they say, "write what you want to read," so I wrote it. The original concept was to have a three-sided conflict, but in the end I went with "two people with the same goal working against each other because they chose different paths toward that goal". All the worldbuilding, all of the conflicts, and all of the side cast were built around the central idea of Lucas and Faye being on opposing sides because of incompatible methods as opposed to incompatible objectives.
QT: How long have you been writing?
Florence Chien:
Since I was able to hold a pen. My mother has a literature degree so she drilled it into me from a young age. But I'm an immigrant and English isn't my first language, so I only started writing seriously in English around 2006.
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
Florence Chien:
The queried version of the book was mostly a COVID production, so yes, I'm part of the influx of people that "wrote a book" during COVID and queried it immediately after. But that said, the very first draft of this book started an eon ago in 2006. Not a single sentence from that version, nor from the three or four successor versions, carried through to the queried version.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
Florence Chien:
I did give up. Not during query, but I gave up writing altogether when I started working because my day job simply demanded too much of my time and attention. For a long three years, I thought my publishing dream was dead. But COVID happened and I suddenly had time again, so I picked up writing again. I can't say that I actively sought out advice or assistance that kept me on course; for me it was mostly because of unexpected opportunities coming to me at the right time. Most milestones in publishing are heavily dependent on luck, and I have been extremely lucky every step of the way.

This is not me saying "sit and wait for opportunities to come to you". Go seek out opportunities. I did plenty of that too. I tried RevPit twice, washed out the first time, shortlisted the second. I applied for WriteHive and other mentorships, got nothing but at least I tried. I participated in pitch events, I did writer's lift, I circulated my query package for critiques, and I critiqued other people's query packages. The list goes on. Even though none of them was the direct causal factor for my offer, collectively they were instrumental because I learned something from each of those experiences.
QT: Is this your first book?
Florence Chien:
Technically yes, but substantively, if you took any of the three or four predecessor versions and changed the character and city names, they'd be completely different books.
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
Florence Chien:
Depends on what you mean. Growing up, I had a lot of formal writing training because that's a fundamental focus in my country, but that training wasn't in English. In terms of post-secondary education, I don't have any BAs in English, MFAs, or certifications in creative writing. Never took any online classes or workshops either. I'm entirely self-taught.
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
Florence Chien:
It's impossible. My day job demands obscene hours from me on a regular basis. I write whenever I can, whenever I'm not exhausted. That means sometimes I'm doing nothing but writing on a weekend, but sometimes I can go through weeks without putting a single word down on paper.
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
Florence Chien:
Hard to count because I edit as I go. But roughly speaking, the queried version had two major overhauls, and one that only changed the last 30k words.
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
Florence Chien:
I did three rounds. The first two rounds had 3 betas each, and the last round had 2. So in total, 8 beta readers.
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
Florence Chien:
I can't write from the hip, I need to be able to visualize a scene in my head from start to finish. I do a lot of mental stage direction and camera angle tweaking before I start putting words on paper. But that said, my outline wasn't particularly extensive. It's a spreadsheet with the (rough) scenes listed out, and each scene had five to ten sentences describing the events that needed to happen or thematic objectives that I wanted to achieve.
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
Florence Chien:
This is the first and only book I've queried. I started in early March 2023 and received my offer late April 2024, so pretty much exactly 14 months.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
Florence Chien:
Ha! This is gonna be controversial. A whooping 150 queries. I'm an opportunist so as long as they took adult fantasy, I queried them. (Minus a handful where a specific anti-mswl item applied.) I'm a firm believer of "shoot your shot" because every shot you take is a non-zero chance, but those that you don't take will necessarily be a zero chance.
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
Florence Chien:
1. Accepted my genre and age category. 2. Didn't have any anti-mswl items that would preclude my ms. That's it.

That said, this doesn't mean that I was willing to accept representation from just anybody. I just decided that, if by some strange twist of fate, I'm offered rep by an agent that the whisper network considers a yellow or red flag, I will do my risk assessment then. If the risk exposure is high then I will turn them down. If the risk exposure is personally acceptable, then I might use that offer to try to kick up some dust with the CNRs and ghosts.
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
Florence Chien:
Only if there was something on their mswl that matched closely with my manuscript. The middle six months of my querying was a really depressing stretch of rejections and silence, and I found that there was very little statistical difference between the early queries that I painstakingly personalized and those that I didn't. So I stopped personalizing unless there's something on their mswl that truly and genuinely matched with my ms.
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
Florence Chien:
Find your people. Find like-minded authors who are at a similar stage, and form a group. Establish solidarity and collegiality with them, and hold them dear and true to your heart. They will be your cheerleaders, your pillow to cry on, your sober voice of caution, your readers, your lifeline. Querying is depressing and demoralizing, but you don't have to suffer it alone.

Shoutout to the bread basket for keeping me from going stale. Shoutout to my query twin for keeping me company in every gapzone. You guys are the pit that supports the structural integrity of this rotting fruit.

Query Letter:

Dear Mara,

I'm excited to share with you THE REVENANT OF SUROLIFIA, an adult political fantasy of 120,000 words featuring Belle Époque aesthetics and themes of anti-colonialism, found family, and new adult coming-of-age. Based on your MSWL for accessible fantasy politics and rebellions and revolutions, I believe this may be a good fit for your list. There also happens to be lots of yearning between star-crossed lovers, and between brothers who find themselves enemies of each other. This story will appeal to the fans of The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson, The Justice of Kings by Richard Swan, and The Helm of Midnight by Marina J. Lostetter. This manuscript was shortlisted in the #RevPit 2023 contest by developmental editors Jeni Chappelle and Miranda Darrow and longlisted by Carly Hayward.

When the Empire of Colors slaughters seventeen-thousand of his silver-eyed kin, Lucas Rhine buries his hatred, hides his eyes behind colored lenses, and vows to become the imperial gendarmerie's commander. He will liberate the temperate island that he calls home, but through a diplomatic secession.

Usurped prince Faye Phlorik escapes from prison and joins the revolutionaries. They need a silver-eyed champion to rally the people, and Faye needs their resources to defeat the gendarmerie protecting the usurper.

Faye's escape costs Lucas's promotion to commander. Resentful, Lucas undertakes to stop the revolution while Faye tries to kill Lucas. Their schemes grow more vicious until their mutual mentor, now a revolutionary strategist, is arrested during a crossfire. Faye must rescue his mentor from execution. More than the need to salvage his faltering partnership with the revolutionaries, guilt drives Faye forward. His previous recklessness had left his mentor bound to a wheelchair; this is his final chance to earn forgiveness. Meanwhile, the mentor beseeches Lucas to mend his broken brotherhood with Faye. Lucas had forsworn violence as a means of change, but he must now choose between joining a revolution that will reprise the empire's massacre and preserving his pursuit of diplomatic reform by killing his mentor and martial brother.

But the empire is coming to exterminate everyone with silver eyes. If Faye and Lucas can't unite their forces against the imperial warships, there will soon be nothing left of the people they're both trying to liberate.

I'm a Chinese-Canadian immigrant now residing in Toronto. By day, I'm a commercial real estate lawyer. My short story "No Nationality" was published by Polar Expressions Publishing in the 2009 anthology, Under the Canopy.

Per your submission guidelines, I have included the synopsis and the first 4 pages of chapter 1 below. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Florence Chien