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An Interview with Siobhan Manrique upon receiving an offer of representation.

04/16/2021

Siobhan Manrique (smanrique on QT) has signed with agent Em Lysaght of Ladderbird Literary Agency.

Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it?
Definitely! Nightmare Nina is a chilling upper middle grade suspense/horror novel featuring the intersection of sibling dynamics and the Southwestern supernatural. Nina is a twelve-year-old girl struggling with depression. Luna is her bubbly, type-A fifteen-year-old sister. Following Nina's breakdown and hospitalization during spring break just months before, the sisters have been at odds. Their parents have prescribed a family camping trip to smooth things over between the two sisters. But sinister creatures close in on the campsite, and distrust between the sisters could cost them their lives—and their bodies.

I was inspired to write this by some of the hardships I experienced in my adolescence, but also by my students. As a middle school teacher, I've gotten some real perspective on the fact that everyone has problems. The horrors of life are universal. I thought my world was ending when I was twelve—and evidently, it wasn't. It fascinates me that there is such a spectrum of how people deal with trauma. I think it's important to know that we can be emotionally honest with the people closest to us without destroying those relationships. Everyone can be so embarrassed of their emotions, even when we're all coping with similar things and we all just want happiness. Naturally, I decided to put a couple sisters through something monstrous, and I hoped that they'd understand each other a bit better in the end.
How long have you been writing?
I made a habit of writing back in junior high, when I would write what I later realized were poems in the “Saturday” and “Sunday” columns of my school planner. I wrote a lot of fun fantasy stories with my older sister throughout high school, and this really helped me develop my voice in prose. All my imaginary friends lived on the page. As an undergraduate at Northern Arizona University, I took workshop courses in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and I loved them. Since 2018, I started submitting work to literary journals, and occasionally my pieces get accepted! I mainly produce poetry, but as a middle school teacher, I now have some breaks in the calendar that let me work on longer projects as well.
How long have you been working on this book?
I wrote Nightmare Nina during my summer break in 2020. I had a couple pages of description from fall 2019, which I had tried and failed to morph into a poem. After binge-writing in June and July, I started querying at the end of the summer, which was way too early. After revisions in September, the manuscript was much more itself; it reached its current form in late December 2020 after a couple minor changes.
Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
Yes, I definitely did! My first full request ended as a rejection. Then, although I received two more full requests pretty shortly thereafter, they were radio silence for months (which is normal, but nerve-wracking). What helped me stay on course was checking in frequently with my writer friend (actually a classmate from my workshop days!). I also made sure to participate in each pitch contest I could, to revisit my pitches and put myself out there.

I had to put the manuscript away after a while. I knew it was the best I could make it at the time, and it deserved a forever home, but if I obsessed over it, I would only stress myself out. I wrote more poems and short stories, kept busy with lesson planning and reading, and tried to remind myself that a watched pot never boils. In the 2019-2020 school year (pre-pandemic), we had taken the students to the Arizona Renaissance Fair. A palm reader there had told me to focus on my creative writing, so I did. Whenever I was low on motivation, I reminded myself of that.
Is this your first book?
Yes! Failing NaNoWriMo has become a tradition for me, so I never got a coherent (or long enough) manuscript together. Nightmare Nina is my first completed work longer than a poem or short story!
Do you have any formal writing training?
Yes. I took about 15 semester hours of creative writing workshops as an undergraduate at Northern Arizona University, earning a Certificate in Creative Writing. As an English teacher by day, I'm also constantly immersed in reading and writing.
Do you follow a writing "routine" or schedule?
No, not really. I try to write at least something each week, be it the start of a poem or a word sprint for prose. However, I do try to write extra during winter, spring, and summer breaks.
How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
I continuously edited it in the late summer—mainly I expanded scenes. In the fall, I added a new introductory scene and changed some sections that were thematically shaky or a bit farfetched for the genre. These changes were inspired by feedback from beta readers, my first full manuscript rejection, and from the 10 Queries RevPit editor who read my query and first five pages (enter the 10 Queries contest, guys!).
Did you have beta readers for your book?
I really only had three! I had a feeling I should have sought out more, but again, I'm pretty introverted. Two of the readers were writers, and 1 was more of an avid reader. I made most of the changes they suggested. Some suggestions didn't match what I was trying to achieve—but even that feedback was helpful because it clued me into what was and wasn't working.
Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
I wrote from the hip until the last third. This was good because it kept me guessing, but bad because there were at least 2 scenes where I almost called it quits. The first was a conversation between the sisters where the elder sister is confessing something, and I had no idea what it would be. I think I pushed through that with writing sprints. I want to outline in the future, but in this case, I was pushed forward by a string of strange events in the plot. I had to figure out which events or signs were red herrings and which were actual threats to the characters. Then I had to ask myself what monster or thing could account for all the threats so far. I did outline the final third of the narrative, when I finally got an inkling of what was going on.
How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
I have been querying this book since July (which was way too early), so it was eight months before I got the call! This is my only book so far.
About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
I sent about 58 query letters. Of those queries, 5 received full requests, 20 never received a response, and the rest were declined.
On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
I joined Twitter last summer in order to hunt down the Writing Community and try to stay abreast of agent preferences and general goings-on. I also used Query Tracker, manuscriptwishlist.com, and, separately, mswishlist.com (which compiles all the Twitter posts with #mswl). I started with looking for agents interested in middle grade fiction, then any subgenres that matched my manuscript (horror, suspense, family stories, paranormal, mental health)—and many agent profiles said “definitely not” to some of those subgenres, so this often narrowed the field. It was also important to me to check an agency's agent list and client list for diversity, to make sure it wasn't just a buzz word to them. As a Venezuelan-Irish American living in rural Arizona, representation is real to me, not just a seasonal catchphrase. I also learned a lot from Alexa Donne's Youtube Channel, about how to discern between agents you would and wouldn't want to do business with. So (insofar as the information was available online), if genre, intentions, values, and style matched, that got me to query.
Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
I mainly tailored the introductory paragraph of my query letter to mention some element of the agent's genre, theme, or plot element preferences, to show them I'd done my research! I also made sure to check on each agent's preferred pronouns, if that information was available online.
What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
I know it's been said before, but if you think you're ready to query, you're not. Give it at least another month, and have another, lower-stakes project going on to keep you busy. Also, read and write short stories. There are a lot of wonderful literary magazines out there, so connect with fellow writers and practice your craft. Be patient with yourself and connect with your writer friends. Even 1 great writer friend will make such a huge difference. Trade pages with them, give each other feedback, and be supportive.
Would you be willing to share your query with us?
Yes! Here it is.

Dear Ms. Lysaght,

I am reaching out to you due to your interest in middle grade fiction with a focus on friendship and elements of horror. Nightmare Nina is a chilling 36,000-word upper middle grade suspense novel featuring the intersection of sibling dynamics and the Southwestern supernatural.

After a year of mental health struggles that she'd rather not talk about, twelve-year-old Nina tries to reconnect with her perfect fifteen-year-old sister, Luna. In the secrecy of a remote Arizona campsite, the sisters embark on a trip with their parents, hoping to restore a sense of peace and normalcy in their family.

The sisters' every attempt to reconnect is plagued with fear when the ghost stories their father recites at the campfire seem to take on a life of their own. Nina's beloved teddy bear vanishes overnight. Hikes in the forest unearth a strange symbol. Swims at the lake offer a glimpse at shadowy strangers. Right when Nina thought she could have a fresh start and not be the freak for once, she finds herself face-to-face with the embodiment of that obnoxious moniker her classmates and sister love to lob at her: Nightmare Nina. And although she stopped caring about herself long ago, this time Luna is right beside her in the dark. The sister who previously scorned her could be her only hope. But in skinwalker territory, the lack of trust between the sisters could cost them their lives—and their bodies.

This novel follows a conflicted sister relationship as in Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones and deals with wicked doppelgangers as in Coraline by Neil Gaiman. The potential audience would be older middle grade and young adult readers. This narrative would also appeal to readers interested in family and sibling relationships in the contexts of coming-of-age and mental health issues.

I am a Venezuelan-Irish middle school English teacher in rural Arizona. Having grown up in the Navajo Nation, I have an affinity for tribal folklore. I earned my B.A. in English and Certificate in Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University. My poetry, nonfiction, and short fiction have appeared in Talking Writing, Full House Literary Magazine, Two Sisters Writing and Publishing, and others. My latest short story is forthcoming in Button Eye Review.

The first three chapters are provided below. I appreciate any time and attention my submission receives.

Sincerely,

Siobhan Manrique