A #DVpit Success Story:
Interview with S. A. Chakraborty and Jennifer Azantian

** UPDATE: S.A. Chakraborty’s adult fantasy, THE CITY OF BRASS, has found a publisher with Harper Voyager! We are so delighted to have the author back to answer a few follow-up questions about the deal, the book, and the experience since #DVpit.

Shan, first of all, congratulations on your book deal! We’d love to hear how the submission process was for you, from editing to polishing, to going out on sub to publishers, to getting news of your book deal. Catch us up on what’s happened since #DVpit!

SHAN: Thank you, Beth! And thanks for having me back, as well, and for hosting #DVpit—it literally changed my life!

The past year has been a pretty wild ride: wonderful and completely surreal. I signed with Jen, my agent, last spring and we decided to power through edits during the summer and then have the book ready to go out on submission in the fall. It was a lot of work, but I felt ready. We’d go out on sub in September, and I figured that I’d take a month or so off writing to recuperate, work on some side projects to distract myself, and generally settle in for a long stretch of waiting.

And then we had a pre-empt in four days.

The book went to auction the following week, and I literally collapsed when my agent called to tell me this. I was thrilled and excited, of course, but also TERRIFIED. This was a dream—and I think sometimes dreams feel safest in their original, nebulous state! I had such severe imposter syndrome the weekend before the auction that I seriously considered just backing away from it all (my husband thankfully talked me out of it by pointing out that this was, y’know, a good thing and hey, wouldn’t it be nice to actually get paid for that doorstopper you’ve been pecking at for years?)

And it was a good thing! And an extremely heartening thing. I wrote my book for myself and for my community first, and to have major publishers bidding for what was essentially a fantasy recreation of the Islamic Golden Age—written from the perspective of characters actually inside of and part of that world—was amazing. No one was suggesting I cut out prayers, take out the Arabic, stick in a random Western character—all the things I feared I was going to be told—and that was really encouraging.

Since then, things have been pretty great! Voyager is a wonderful team, very supportive and excited. The idea of all the promotion, not to mention the actual book launch in November, is still a little daunting, but I’m trying not to get too panicked and just enjoy the ride. Will Staehle designed an absolute stunner of a cover that literally took my breath away the first time I saw it, and seeing my words—and my name!—on the beautiful interior design is thrilling. I can’t wait to share my work with the world and consider myself blessed to be able to do so with such fantastic people surrounding me.

Tell us about your editor! What was it like speaking to them for the first time? What is your relationship like?

SHAN: I was a little nervous the first time we spoke, but Priyanka (Priyanka Krishnan at Voyager) put me at ease very quickly and we totally geeked out talking about Mughals and the Mahabharata. More importantly, I felt like she really got the story: the inspirations behind it, where it was going, and why I was telling it. She has a great talent for being a couple mental steps ahead of me and being able to put my nonsensical ramble of an idea or revision into concrete and concise action. She also brought a lot more emotional warmth and magic to the text; the new material we worked on together is some of my favorite in the whole book. I think I have a tendency to get focused on the nitty, gritty historical stuff, and she’s great at bringing me back to fantasy story-telling part.

Looking back, is there anything you wish you knew or prepared for when you were first entering #DVpit and getting ready to pitch agents?

SHAN: When to stop. Social media can be really great as an aspiring author—I owe my success in part to #DVpit—but it can also be consuming. If you’re like me when I was querying—constantly hitting refresh and combing for tips and updates—learn when to take a break. Writing can be a strange thing; it’s a hobby and artistic pursuit, but also a job, albeit a dream one. I think it’s easy to let it bleed into all aspects and hours of your life, but that left me drained and anxious. Put your pitches out there, follow up with queries, network on Twitter, but don’t let it take over your life. Set time limits if necessary and try to put a mental wall between yourself and the process. Persistence is vital if you’re a writer, and you don’t want to burn out.

Also—and this is a bit a repeat from my advice during the last interview—make sure your novel is done! If you get requests from DVpit, they can come fast. Make sure your query, first pages, synopsis, and all that is ready to go.

Are there any updates you can share about your book? Pub date, hints about the cover, finalized jacket copy, pre-order links, etc?

SHAN: There are! THE CITY OF BRASS will be coming out in November 2017, and I was fortunate to have the cover reveal and first excerpt put out through io9 last week. The book is up at Goodreads now and you can also find more information, including pre-order links, at my website.

What’s next for you?

SHAN: I just finished going through first pass pages—basically what the text will look like printed—today so I’ll be returning to my sequel. I’d like to have a decent draft by the end of spring to get out to my early readers so I have some writing sprints ahead. My agent and I are also in talks with some amazing people in film and television, so who knows…maybe I’ll have some news in that realm next!

Congratulations once again, Shan! Thank you for sharing your journey with us, and best of luck with the publication of THE CITY OF BRASS. We’re all excited to see it hit shelves! Also, I encourage EVERYONE to head over to these pre-order links!

[The original interview follows.]

Shan and Jennifer, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview and congratulations on your partnership! To start, Shan, I’d love to know more about your book and why you wrote it.

SHAN: Thanks, Beth. And thanks for organizing DVpit!

My book is a historical fantasy about an Egyptian con artist in eighteenth-century Cairo whose nascent healing abilities attract the attention of a hot-tempered djinn warrior. He steals her away to Daevabad, the legendary city of brass, where her existence threatens to reignite a religious war between the city’s feuding djinn tribes. Hoping to keep her head, Nahri embarks on a shaky friendship with a fiery djinn prince who dreams of revolutionizing his father’s corrupt regime. But in a world where loyalty is a magical bond and grievances last for millennia, she soon learns that working with the enemy – even to make peace – can have deadly consequences.

This book was a passion project for me; one I never really expected to show anyone else. I’m a history buff, and I wanted to create a magical world that paid homage to the roots and diversity of the classical Islamic world; one influenced by everything from Soghdian merchant records and Mughal poetry, to the court culture of the Zanzibar Sultanate and the legends of the Abbasids. I wanted to tell a story about a woman who needed no saving and a young man inspired by his faith to fight for justice. These aren’t voices heard enough in Western media and as a Muslim myself, I thought it important to try and add my own.

Jennifer, what was it about this manuscript that sealed the deal for you?

JENNIFER: Thank you so much for having us, Beth!

Epic fantasy is hard, and I’ve wanted one on my list since I got into this business. Arguably, it’s one of the most challenging subgenres of SFF to get right because you have to be very good at so many things that don’t always co-exist in one writer. I look for strong worldbuilding with a basis in history and understanding of politics. I also need to see emotionally complex characters that rely on a firm understanding of psychological development. And then, of course, I look for beautiful writing that sucks me in all on its own. Honestly, it was everything about this book that sealed the deal for me because all of the above can be found in DAEVABAD: THE CITY OF BRASS. And beyond that, the story is incredibly well-paced and it covers cultural, political, and religious clashes in a sensitive way that is important to me. I’m in awe of Shan and this book.

Shan, how did you prepare this manuscript for submission? Do you work with outlines, schedules, or deadlines? Do you have critique partners and beta readers?

SHAN: I had been working on the story quietly for years, but when I finally got brave enough to show it to others, I worked with the Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers’ group to whip it into shape. I workshopped individual chapters for the first third to make sure I was going in the right direction, did a beta-reading of the final draft, and then revised based on those notes. I use outlines but no schedules – I work when my toddler sleeps!

I owe a huge debt to my writers’ group; however, and if you’re in New York City, you should check us out! We have a variety of workshops and are always open to new members.

And how was the #DVpit experience for you, overall? Expectations? Doubts? Disappointments?

SHAN: I didn’t really know what to expect! I’d only been querying a couple months and was new to Twitter, but I saw a lot of people chatting about it and thought “eh, why not try?” – my approach to pretty much every step of publishing so far. I was waiting to hear back on some fulls anyway and figured it would be a good way to practice some hooks if I needed to start a new round of queries. I was shocked when I later checked my phone; I was just hoping for a favorite or two and ended up with multiple offers of representation!

It was also extremely encouraging to see how much support there was, especially for #ownvoices. And there were so many great pitches – I hope I get to hold some of these books in my hands one day!

How was the experience for you, Jennifer?

JENNIFER: I’ve participated in quite a few Twitter contests at this point, so I knew what to expect, but I was particularly excited about this one. Like so many of my colleagues, I’ve wanted to support diverse writers and stories, but I wasn’t finding enough of those through my inbox alone. When #DVpit came around, I was blown away by all the stories I wanted to read immediately! I requested so much! I was particularly looking for MG and YA at the time, but I’m so glad that I didn’t close myself off to adult manuscripts because otherwise I would have never found Shan!

Shan, did you receive pitch help? Any words of wisdom you’d like to pass along to future participants?

SHAN: Besides bouncing some ideas off my husband, not really. But I did a lot of research and recommend others do the same. Dan Koboldt (who runs SFFpit) has a lot of great tips about Twitter contests on his website, and it’s fairly easy to browse through the past contests to see which type of pitches were the most popular. Think along the same lines as when creating a hook: what’s different about your story and what would make your 140 characters stand out from all the others. Brainstorm a dozen or so different pitches and see which parts resonate. I also suggest running it past some people unfamiliar with your novel; they’ll have the same fresh perspective as prospective agents and editors.

And if you do get a request, don’t hit send right away! Research the agent/editor before querying to make sure you’ll be a good fit. Luckily I didn’t have to do that for Jennifer. She was on my agent wish list from the beginning but closed to unsolicited queries. If not for DVpit, we might never have matched up! So go ahead and try, it can’t hurt. But don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t work out: there are a lot of people pitching, and it can be easy to get lost in the fray.

And Jennifer, do you have any advice for querying authors and/or for anyone planning to participate in a future #DVpit?

JENNIFER: Absolutely! I usually look for character+stakes+unique element. Introduce me to who your story is about (not so much what it’s about), let me know what the character(s) are facing, and be as specific as you can to highlight the parts of your story that are different from everything else out there. What doesn’t work for me both on Twitter and in queries are when I see phrases like “good vs. evil”, “high stakes”, or “battles, danger, and fun”. These are too general and vague to hook me. Honing in on one element of your story that you can hang your hat on is a good place to start!

Tell us about The Call, Shan!

SHAN: I was cautiously optimistic that Jennifer was going to offer. She liked my partial so much, she requested my full before finishing it, saying she thought I had something special (I reread and analyzed this message probably fifty times). She ended up reading the full in a week – and it’s a doorstopper of a book – and I got an email saying she loved it and read until she was done at 3 AM. I was so happy, so excited!

And then I was so panicked! I was going to be traveling, so I either spoke to her that night or waited until the end of the week. I did not feel ready to have any sort of conversation with A Literary Agent. So I banished my family, reread the book in about seven hours, decided it was terrible, I was terrible, and I was going to set awkward Muslim history buffs back decades.

Then the call went great. Jennifer was lovely, extremely enthusiastic, and didn’t seem to mind talking to a stammering fool from Queens. I was truly so nervous, I don’t remember half of it, but I do recall how much she loved my world and its characters – for many of the same reasons I did. Her enthusiasm and excitement were so infectious, I was immediately sold. I remember thinking, “yes, this is the person I want gushing about my book at conferences and pitching to publishers.” But more than that, her editorial advice was (and continues to be) spot on. I had vague, nebulous ideas of what needed to be improved, and it was like she plucked them out of my head and said them in a way that made sense and gave me direction. My book is already so much stronger under her guidance, and I feel confident that when we send it out, it will be in the best shape possible.

Give us the pitch that hooked your agent!

SHAN: “An Egyptian con artist gets more than she bargained for when a scheme gone wrong attracts the attention of an angry djinn warrior. #DVpit #F”

Jennifer, what was it about this pitch that caught your attention?

JENNIFER: To be honest, she had me at fantasy set in Egypt. Most of the queries I get for fantasy (especially epic fantasy) are Euro-centric, so that piqued my interest. Add in a con artist as the protagonist and djinn mythology, and I knew this was something I at least had to see. Also, I took a look at Shan’s profile and saw that she was a history buff. I love writers who have a background or strong academic interest in history, politics, and/or mythology.

What else are you looking for these days? Is there anything specific on your wishlist that you’re hoping to find, maybe at the next #DVpit?

JENNIFER: Right now, I’d love to find a spooky middle grade, a YA space opera, and some adult magical realism that plays at the edges of our reality and uses that to inform the story. I have more of my wish-list in my bio, too, but more than anything, I’m looking for stories that explore those universal joys and challenges we all experience and that make me reexamine my own thoughts and feelings related to the focus of the story. If you can make me care and think, you’ve got me.

Warm congratulations to Shan and Jennifer for finding each other! I’m looking forward to seeing where they go next. Follow them on Twitter so you can do the same!

After S. A. Chakraborty is a speculative fiction writer from New York City. Her debut, The City of Brass, is the first book in an epic fantasy trilogy set in the 18th century Middle East and will be published in November 2017 by Harper Voyager. When not buried in books about Mughal portraiture and Omani history, she enjoys hiking, knitting, and cooking unnecessarily complicated meals for her family. You can find her online most frequently at Twitter (@SChakrabs) where she likes to ramble about history, politics, and Islamic art.
Photo credit: Melissa C. Beckman

Jennifer Azantian is an agent who founded Azantian Literary in 2014 where she specializes in science fiction, fantasy, and smart psychological horror novels for middle grade, YA, and adult readers. Of particular interest are stories that explore meaningful human interactions against fantastic backdrops, underrepresented voices, literary science fiction, historical fantasy, space operas, non-dystopian/well-crafted futures, internally consistent epic fantasy, and quirky middle-grade. Website: azantianlitagency.com Twitter: @jenazantian
Photo credit: Roxyanne Young