A #DVpit Success Story:
Interview with Samantha Reed and Lisa Abellera

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

Sam: First, off, I’m beyond excited to get to do this. I loved everything about the #DVPit experience, and I’m so grateful for it. Okay, now to answer the question; Gray Salt is literary fiction built on a hot southern summer when abuse, love, and sacred food secrets become the catalysts of change for a young girl. Honestly, I feel like it wrote itself in-spite of me. It’s very loosely based on my own life growing up and is sort of my internal reckoning to find peace with things I’d been avoiding from my childhood. I had no intention of writing it. What I had was a memory of my Grandma eating cornbread and buttermilk in the mornings for breakfast, the sight and sound and smell of that felt like home to me, and begged to be written down. So that’s what I did, I typed that one sentence, “Sometimes my Grandma eats cornbread and buttermilk for breakfast” into my computer, and walked away from it for about a year. Then, I came across that sentence one day, took a deep breath, and word by word, built a story to ‘therapy’ myself by the world I created for this one girl, hoping to find resolution for us both.

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

Lisa: It was the voice that first hooked me. Then as I continued to read, I just fell in love with its rich, lyrical language. But it was the main character’s high personal stakes that pulled me into her journey and had me turning pages (not to mention, food figured prominently, which for me, is always a plus). And there was such a depth to the characters and a meaningful inner life that had me emotionally invested to the end.

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

Sam: I didn’t have critique partners or beta readers, though I wish I had, if for no other reason than to take myself outside of the solitary writer bubble that so easily forms around me. This book came to be during a period of time where I began acting as the primary caregiver for my mom, as she’s been dealing with a number of health challenges. I was spending the bulk of my time in hospitals or doctor’s offices before being gifted a month of free time, and squeezing out the first draft of the manuscript quick, fast, and in a hurry. Soon after, I was back on a caretaker schedule, and so worked on polishing up the book whenever I could. I also don’t work with outlines or schedules; I can see how those tools can be helpful for others, but it’s never worked for me. Somehow my brain finds that kind of structure limiting, it gets me too locked into thinking down a specific train of thought. Stories seem to flow better for me when I’m free to go wherever the words are taking me. I realize in writing that, it can make it seem like it’s an easy process, and it’s not. Writing for me isn’t what I would call easy, there are moments where I feel like I’m clawing the words from inside me onto the page, but writing for me is necessary. It’s the only thing I’ve consistently done for my entire life. Now, back to the question: while I didn’t have any of those ‘traditional’ resources, I did query the novel and receive helpful feedback from a few generous agents that allowed me to tighten up the story as best as I could.

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

Sam: #DVPit was everything! Even before the actual pitch day, being part of the community on Twitter, and seeing all the encouragement and love that’s centered around diversity authors, and own voices manuscripts, was completely invigorating! Honestly, by the time #DVPit rolled around, I’d kind of given up on Gray Salt ever being picked up by an agent. I’d queried, and been rejected, then had a brief partnership with an agent who was wonderful, but we came to part ways since we couldn’t agree on how to market the book (she saw it as YA and I saw it as adult Lit Fic). By then, during the course of five years, I’d racked up over 150 rejection letters, and lots of second guessing myself, thinking, maybe this wasn’t a story that needed to be told, maybe there wasn’t space for it. Then, I started interacting on Twitter, became aware of #DVPit, still wasn’t really thinking about it because I’d mistakenly thought it was only for YA work. But when I found out there was a day to pitch adult material, I thought to myself, okay, I’ll give this one last try, if nothing else, it’ll help me streamline an elevator pitch for the novel, which is something folks say you should have, right? So, the week before pitch day, I worked on putting together 8 separate tweets. I relied heavily on tips from Claribel Ortega (thanks lady!) on how to structure those pitches. I made sure to have one that compared Gray Salt to a mash-up of well known literature, as well as making sure they all spoke to what I felt was the uniqueness of the story, to help the pitch be as compelling as possible. I also structured them so that in being read consecutively, they would read like a synopsis of the book, giving as much comprehensive information as I could in 140 characters. I went into it thinking, I’ll just throw these things up into the air with no expectations at all, so I was shocked when I had interest from a decent amount of agents, but by the time Lisa and I talked, it became immediately clear that she was THE agent for me. It was, for me, as close to serendipitous as you could hope to get.

How was the experience for you, Lisa?

Lisa: Pitch parties are always overwhelming on the agent-side, but I still enjoy doing them. I’m closed for unsolicited submissions, so I rely a lot on pitch parties and other online query contests to find book projects. I thought #DVpit was a great experience. I really like the idea of a pitch party specifically for diverse and #ownvoices stories. While I’m always looking for diverse projects in other pitch parties, it’s easy to miss those pitches, especially in those pitch parties that are larger in scope.

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

Sam: I think my words of wisdom would be to heed the advice of previous participants. Claribel’s tweets and YouTube videos were a huge help in figuring out what aspects of my story to highlight in the pitches. The other big thing, I think, is to plan your pitches out ahead of time, write them down, rework them, search the hashtag for pitches that got a lot of agent interest, figure out why they worked, and try to do the same for your own pitch. If you wait ‘til pitch day to create and post your pitches, you’re just trying to get something out there before the window closes, making it easy to overlook highlighting that important, magical element that could make all the difference in finding the right agent.

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

Lisa: If you can, I recommend taking advantage of #PreDV, which is a #DVpit’s Twitter pitch practice session, to get feedback on your pitches. It’s also a great way to connect with other writers. Also do a little research before pitch day. There are plenty of online articles and blog posts about the best way to pitch and what goes into a good twitter pitch. And always read up on the pitch party rules and use genre hashtags. I often narrow my pitch party search to look for pitches in a specific genre. Speaking of Twitter searches, I also suggest authors do a search of past pitches to compare the wording of the tweet-pitches that received the most “likes” to the ones that were not successful.

Tell us about The Call, Sam!

Sam: This call!!! So prior to the call, in our email correspondence, Lisa let me know that she’d read an earlier copy of Gray Salt as an editorial intern. When we first spoke on the phone, she let me know that she’d not only read it, but recommended it, though at the time the agency had chosen to take a pass. She went on to say that she’d kept up with me and the book through the magic that is social media, and recognized it when I pitched it as part of #DVPit.

It was clear from our first conversation that Lisa was the perfect agent for me. She’d believed in the book from the beginning, which in itself was saying a lot, since the majority of feedback I’d received indicated the story was probably too dark, and at times too quiet, for most folks to connect with in the way I’d hoped. But it was more than just her belief in the story. As we went over her editorial notes, it was clear that she also understood where the story needed to go, what was necessary to enrich the integrity of the book in a way that felt completely authentic. Previous feedback from a few other agents was focused on making the book more marketable, and while I could obviously understand that motivation, we all want our books to sell, I could never get on board with those suggestions because in the end, they felt like they would take the book outside of itself, and I couldn’t stand behind that. Lisa understood Gray Salt in a way that I’d hoped and prayed for, and I knew in working with her, the story would have no choice but to become the best version of itself. So for me that call was everything, it was years of work coming full circle to land on the right partnership at the perfect time.

What’s even crazier is that the call we had to finalize everything came the day after the Presidential election results were confirmed. All while my brain was spinning with how to process what that result said/confirmed about the world I was living in, there was hope in speaking with Lisa. In affirming my desire to work with her, I knew that I was going to do the only thing I could think to do, in resistance to something so diametrically opposed to everything I’ve ever believed in. I was going to write stories, and use it as my voice, the best way I knew how.

Give us the pitch that hooked your agent!

Sam: “Grandma's the keeper of Gray's secret. She rubs her bruises w/vaseline & says I'm sorry with secret lettuce celebrations #own #dvpit”

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

Lisa: It was the character’s name, Gray, in the tweet that first caught my attention. Then I saw who the author was, and I had to request a submission. I’d actually read the manuscript a few years ago when I was still an editorial intern at the agency. It was one of the very few projects I recommended to the agents. Out of the thousands of submissions I’d read, I probably recommended less than ten projects during my time as an intern, so I was very disappointed when there wasn’t interest in Sam’s novel. After I moved on to other roles in the agency, Sam was among a handful of authors that I kept track of, and I wasn’t at all surprised when she’d gotten representation. What did surprise me, though, was seeing her pitch the novel on #DVpit. I think I did a double-take, then maybe squealed or jumped up and down in my excitement. Like I said, I knew had to request it. Then when I re-read her novel, I fell in love with Gray all over again and had to offer Sam representation.

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?

Lisa: With how crazy the world is right now, I would love to find fiction projects in any genre that portray the undocumented immigrant, dreamer or refugee experience. I want to read a story that illuminates and immerses me in a completely different world or culture. But then, as a Filipino-American, I’d also love to find something that resonates with my background and cultural experience.

I keep adding to my wishlist (#MSWL), so it’s hard to say which ones I hope to find right now. I want them all! I’m still looking for a story set in Cuba, and I’m interested in science fiction and fantasy that touches on issues like climate change, social injustice and racial or gender intolerance. I’d love to find a STEM-focused middle grade or a puzzle-based YA or middle grade mystery or thriller. In truth, I’m just hoping to find a project that delivers, with artistic excellence, an enthralling story with multifaceted and compelling characters.

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

Sam Reed (@SamDReed) is a born and bred southern girl (Pulaski, Virginia to be exact) who grew up reading Zora Neale Hurston, Christopher Pike, Octavia Butler, Dean Koontz and Stephen King. When she’s not thinking of what to write she is napping or eating, going to church, wishing she could sing, dreaming of owning a tiny house, watching A Different World reruns, trying to perfect her grandma’s biscuit recipe, drinking scotch, or reading a book.

Tricia Skinner (@LisaAbellera) joined Kimberley Cameron and Associates in 2013 with a background in management, marketing, and finance. She studied creative writing, design and business, earning her B.A. in Strategic Management from Dominican University of CA and her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from University of San Francisco. In addition, she is an alumna of the Voices of Our Nations Arts (VONA) writing workshop.

Lisa is drawn to well-crafted, emotionally-immersive fiction with strong hooks and complex characters with high personal stakes especially if they involve family or other close relationships, a lush sense of place, multicultural aspects, international settings and page-turning twists. She is seeking mysteries, suspense, thrillers (especially with a bit of science or the supernatural), science fiction, fantasy (most speculative fiction except paranormal), romance if it’s an element or part of another genre, upmarket fiction, women's fiction, historical fiction, YA and middle grade. She is actively looking for diverse books, especially by #ownvoices authors and writers from marginalized or underrepresented backgrounds.