Success Story Interview - S K Ali

An Interview with S K Ali (dahkut on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent John Cusick of Folio 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?
S K Ali:
Saints and Misfits is about how a 15 year-old girl processes her life after being assaulted by a revered member of her Muslim community -- by categorizing the people in her life as either saints, misfits or monsters. It's a #MeToo novel. I was inspired to write it because I've always been interested in resilience and how people go on after trauma.
QT: How long have you been writing?
S K Ali:
With avid interest since I was 11 years old! (Let's say it's been over thirty years.) But in terms of book-making writing, I've been doing that seriously for the last ten years.
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
S K Ali:
Saints and Misfits took me five years to write while working full-time as a second-grade teacher.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
S K Ali:
Yes, lots of times! What made me stay on course was remembering that, growing up, I'd never seen a Muslim girl in a book in my school or neighborhood library, a Muslim girl just doing regular things. I was committed to helping change that reality for the young people growing up now. I was also fortunate to have a wonderful, cheering-squad of a support group made up of family, friends and fellow writers.
QT: Is this your first book?
S K Ali:
Yes. But not my first manuscript. I wrote another one, the one that taught me how NOT to write a book, first.
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
S K Ali:
I do have a degree in Creative Writing. That's where I learned how to take feedback and workshop and the entire critiquing process. Invaluable stuff as you move through the editorial process as an author!
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
S K Ali:
No, sadly, I am a creature of inspiration! If I'm inspired and motivated, I could write for three or four days straight. If I'm not, I stay far away from my laptop. But on those days, I do try to mull and problem-solve plot points or untangle story issues using a pen and paper. I also do other creative stuff like art, sewing, etc. to keep my mind working. That said, while I was writing Saints and Misfits, I forced myself to sit at my laptop at least twice a week consistently. Sometimes I wouldn't get much done but I still showed up (and those weeks when I was motivated, I'd spent more than two days writing). "Showing up" was important to getting the book finished.
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
S K Ali:
I'm what's known as a clean first drafter or a continuous-reviser. Before I sit to write new content, I re-read my work until that point (or at least a few chapters up until that point) and revise/edit as I go along. When I'm done, I'm usually done! That was the case with Saints and Misfits. (Except for the beginning, the first chapter -- which had five different versions.)
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
S K Ali:
Yes and I love them, because they were teenagers, my audience. These beta readers were purely readers who told me about their reading experience. I also had critique partners (other writers) who gave me writing insight into my work.
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
S K Ali:
I wrote into the dark (pantsing!) and then outlined as I developed the threads. So I combined both. And, to this day, I usually organize/outline a lot of my writing in the shower or in the middle of the night so I have a notepad in the shower and on my night-table!
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
S K Ali:
I sent a batch of five queries with another beginning (other than the one that ended up receiving offers) a year before. It didn't get bites so I SPENT AN ENTIRE YEAR just working on my beginning (and my query). Then, when I tried again, within a week and a half, I had my first offer, with several offers following quickly after.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
S K Ali:
I think it was fourteen.
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
S K Ali:
What kind of manuscripts they were looking for, whether they'd sold books in my genre recently and how interested they were in representing authors of marginalized backgrounds.
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
S K Ali:
Yes I did. Just by following their specific guidelines and, if they were someone who liked it, just noting something about their interests. (Like, "I note you are interested in diverse narratives..." etc.)
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
S K Ali:
Follow each agent's guidelines. Also test your query out with writer friends. Another also: make sure you spend a lot of time making your first twenty-five pages stellar. (this shows your writing aptitude/skills/voice.)
QT: Would you be willing to share your query with us?
S K Ali:
Here is the beginning (that I tweaked for individual agents)::

Query Letter:

Dear ***,

I'm seeking representation for my YA Contemporary manuscript, "Saints, Misfits, Monster and Mayhem", complete at 61000 words.

Fifteen year-old Janna Yusuf, daughter of the only divorced mother at the mosque, is a Flannery-O'Connor-obsessed high achiever. So when her best friend's cousin--a holy star in the Muslim community-- assaults her at the end of sophomore year, the only way she can make sense of the events that follow is to see life through Flannery's eyes: rife with saints, misfits and a monster. And, yes, the mayhem that ensues when you take on your assaulter with a Niqabi Ninja YouTuber at your side.