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Success Story Interview - Jessica Russak-Hoffman

An Interview with Jessica Russak-Hoffman (JessicaRussakHoffman on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent Alice Sutherland-Hawes of ASH Literary.


QT: Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it?
Jessica Russak-Hoffman:
It's a middle-grade Jewish twin witch story, and honestly it came to me because someone tweeted a photo of the Olsen twins and they looked like they could be witches. I had just read a Jewish story that bordered on fantasy and loved seeing my own identity represented in a book that wasn't just Holocaust fiction, and I was excited to write my own story with Jewish witches, mysticism, magic, and folklore. Between the Olsen twins and the Jewish fantasy novel, it all kind of fell into place.
QT: How long have you been writing?
Jessica Russak-Hoffman:
My whole life, in some form or another. I thought I would be a journalist, but by college I knew novelist was my direction.
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
Jessica Russak-Hoffman:
Not long, actually. I wrote it, revised it, sent it to betas and got it back and revised it again, all in the span of 6 weeks this winter. And I did an agent-recommended revision in July.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
Jessica Russak-Hoffman:
I never felt like giving up, but I was frustrated and very emotional and anxious. I had nonstop bouts of impostor syndrome and worried that I'd be querying forever. What helped me stay cool was writing new books while I waited to hear back from queries.
QT: Is this your first book?
Jessica Russak-Hoffman:
It's my third. I queried my first, got full requests, but either never heard back or received rejections on those requests. In the meantime, I wrote a second. I queried it, but withdrew it from consideration two days later because first of all, it wasn't very good, and second of all, the idea for my third book came to me and I didn't want to have a query out with agents who I might want for my third one, which I knew would be better. And it was. The point is, though, that I never sat around and waited for one book to be "the one and only."
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
Jessica Russak-Hoffman:
Not at all. I write when my kids are at school or when they're asleep. Sometimes it's one sentence, sometimes it's 5k words.
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
Jessica Russak-Hoffman:
I'm an edit-as-I-go kinda gal, but I did do a front-to-back edit before sending to betas, then revised the whole thing again. Then once more in July. That last revision is the one that got me the offer, but not from the agent who gave me the revise-and-resubmit.
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
Jessica Russak-Hoffman:
I'm a pantser. I had a general idea of how I wanted it to go, but I more often than not found myself writing my characters into dark magical corners, and needing to open up my Jewish mysticism and folklore books to find ways to write them out.
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
Jessica Russak-Hoffman:
For this book, 4 months.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
Jessica Russak-Hoffman:
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
Jessica Russak-Hoffman:
I started with agents whose MSWL fit my book, then moved on to agents with quick response times, as well as agents who liked my pitches on twitter pitch party days.
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
Jessica Russak-Hoffman:
Yes. I started with MSWL and personalizing, often chose different comps, and adjusted a word or two in the blurb when necessary.
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
Jessica Russak-Hoffman:
Keep writing while you query!!! Your debut book isn't going to be your only book ever, so don't get too attached to one book being the one that gets you the agent. Keep moving forward. It helps with the waiting. Also, we all feel like minor-league agent-stalkers, so you are not alone in this feeling. As long as you're polite and don't burn any bridges, you're doing fine. Make twitter writer friends in the query trenches so you don't feel so alone.
QT: Would you be willing to share your query with us?
Jessica Russak-Hoffman:
This is the query that snagged me my agent. Her agency asks for the hook before the metadata, then the blurb.

Query Letter:

Dear ____,

Bina and Elka Josephs are identical in every way except one. Bina isn't a witch.

As you are actively looking to champion diverse and marginalized storytellers and normalize our voices in children's literature, I am seeking your representation for my (word count here) middle-grade novel, BOOK TITLE HERE, a Jewish #OwnVoices standalone with series potential. This book features Jewish magic and folklore in a recognizable world, and will fit neatly on the shelf next to COMP, COMP, and COMP.

Twins Bina and Elka live with fortune-telling Aunt Bloomy and the ghost of long-dead Bubbe Golda in a lighthouse on Blue Heron Island in the Pacific Northwest. On their 12th birthday, only Elka is a witch—and she didn't even study for it! Top that off with Bina's failed spell ruining her last day of the school year, and it really is the worst birthday ever. But bookish bird-watching Bina, full of fun facts and studious note-taking, loves her sister, and helps artistic go-with-the-flow Elka navigate her newly-acquired elemental magic.

When the Almanot—the guardians of the in-between who keep the human world separate from the sheydim world—visit the twins, they come with a warning: Queen Yanshuf of the Sitra Achra has a thing for destroying newbie witches, and she's on her way. Desperate to protect Elka from the sheyd queen, Bina and her sister journey by lighthouse—despite the annoying glitter explosions—from the Puget Sound to Odessa to Easter Island and Salem, in search of a solution. They use Bina’s knowledge and Elka’s witchcraft to battle not-so-mythological beasts and spirits, uncover family secrets, discover hidden dark magic, and steal an object that might solve all their problems—if only they knew how to use it. When Queen Yanshuf takes Elka, Bina must find her true power, and decide what she is willing to sacrifice, before it’s too late.

I am a Seattle-based writer, co-host of the Kiddush Book Club podcast, and mom of three. My publishing credits include ________. BOOK TITLE HERE contains Jewish magic and mysticism, a flying Golem, food from the Old Country, Yiddish proverbs, awesome sisters, sassy old ladies, a talking crow, Squatchie, and the Pacific Northwest. Attached please find the first three chapters and the synopsis. If you would like to see the completed manuscript, please notify me and I will happily send it to you. Thank you for your time and consideration.