A #DVpit Success Story:
Interview with Isabel Sterling and Molly Jaffa

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

ISABEL: Thanks, Beth! And thank you so much for organizing #DVpit. I might not have found Molly without it!

BURNING SALEM follows Hannah Walsh, a seventeen-year-old Elemental Witch who lives in Salem, Massachusetts. Between the ex-girlfriend making her life miserable and the arsonist threatening to expose the Witch Clans, Hannah's not exactly having the easiest summer. Especially when the arsonist tries to kill said ex-girlfriend.

I've always been drawn to writing queer characters in my novels (which are usually some flavor of fantasy). I used to think this interest came from my desire to be a “good ally” for the LGBTQ+ community. But as I finished drafting Salem...I realized there might be a deeper reason why I wrote these characters again and again and again. [Spoiler alert: turns out, I'm bi/queer!]

Revising this story as a queer woman was a very different experience than writing it as an "ally." There was so much I thought I understood before I came out (biphobia, microaggressions, etc.), but there's a huge difference between the intellectual knowing of something versus the actual lived experience. As I revised, I couldn't help but weave this new understanding throughout Hannah's POV.

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

MOLLY: I truly couldn’t put it down. BURNING SALEM hooked me on three major points: plot, world-building, and voice. That’s incredibly rare and tough to pull off, especially in fantasy. I was so eager to find out how the story would end that I blazed through the manuscript in one sitting. I had to read it again before I offered representation just to process it properly! There were so many layers.

I was also dying to know more about the magical world Isabel had created, this incredibly powerful coven of witches that lives amongst the Regs (us non-witch folk). I was intrigued by how Hannah lives in a community that seems idyllic in one way—she can be open about her sexuality and it’s accepted wholeheartedly by her friends, family, and coven leaders—but is still incredibly discriminatory in other ways. I don’t want to spoil the story too much, but there are many ways in which someone can be closeted in this world, and many identities that simply aren’t acceptable to have been born with. How Hannah grapples with and pushes past those discriminatory beliefs—some of them deeply ingrained in her, too, because being part of one marginalized group doesn’t mean that you can’t also be biased against others—is something that was really incredible to experience. I knew I had to have Hannah and Isabel in my life.

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

ISABEL: I love revision. I think it's the most crucial component of writing, and I believe getting outside feedback is an invaluable part of that. Here's a brief look at my process:

-I draft with a beat sheet and revise with a detailed index-card-with-sticky-notes outline

-After I do my initial revision, I send it over to my critique partner, David Purse, who's a Plot Genius and helps me see all the silly things I've done (in the most supportive way possible)

-I revise again and submit a chapter or two at a time to my local critique group. The writers there give really great, insightful feedback. Since we can only get through about 1/3 of a book this way, I keep track of common issues and watch out for similar problems throughout the rest of the story

-For this project, I also had a couple of beta readers: my good friend (and fellow YA writer) Shannon Brisson and my then-girlfriend-now-fiancée Megan, both of whom graciously agreed to read the version I ultimately queried

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

ISABEL: When I first heard of #DVpit, I was both excited and hesitant. I'd never had much success with pitch contests in the past, but I loved the idea of showcasing diverse stories and writers. About a month before the scheduled date, I actually decided I wasn't going to participate; I didn't think I had enough time to finish my revision, and I didn't want to rush. So I forgot about it and kept working.

Luckily, I happened to check Twitter on April 19th and saw all the amazing #DVpit tweets in my feed. I'd finished my revision the night before so I figured it couldn't hurt to put up a couple of pitches. My expectations (based on previous contests) were pretty low. I thought I'd maybe get one or two favorites, so I tried to ignore Twitter as much as possible. When I did finally check my phone, I was shocked to see how much attention my pitches got, both from agents and the writing community overall.

After I got home from my Day Job (and voting!), I researched all the agents who had favorited. Some were already on my query list and some were new names to me. Of the eight who favorited, I queried five who I thought might be a good fit. As you can probably guess, Molly was one of those agents!

How was the experience for you, Molly?

MOLLY: It was exciting and humbling to see so many brilliant ideas in one place. I’ve never requested so much material in one day! I don’t often participate in pitch contests—I usually find it tough to chime in during the day, when I’m working for my current clients. Most of my authors came to me through traditional queries or referrals. As an agent who wholeheartedly believes that We Need Diverse Books, though, I know I can’t just sit back and say, “Well, I’m just not getting those queries.” I need to take a more active stance and ask myself what more I can do to find and support Own Voices. Participating in #dvpit was one way to do that, and I’m so glad that you organized the event, Beth.

After #dvpit wrapped up, I remember watching my inbox like a hawk, crossing my fingers and toes that Isabel would actually submit her work to me. And she did! Once I devoured BURNING SALEM and offered representation, I was pretty much just walking around the office singing a publishing-themed version of “God I Hope I Get It” from A Chorus Line. I’m sure I drove everyone crazy. I felt so unbelievably lucky when Isabel signed with Folio—it’s an honor to represent her work, and I can’t wait to send it out on submission.

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

ISABEL: I bounced pitch ideas off my critique partner and settled on a couple of variations with his help. I definitely recommend getting feedback on your pitches (and your manuscript! But you’ve already done that, right?). You don’t get a lot of space to explain your story, so it’s really helpful to have an outside source who can let you know if your pitch makes sense.

My general advice to anyone participating in pitch contests is two-fold:

1 - If no one favorites your pitches, it’s okay! The feeds move fast, so agents may have missed it. Plus, a 140 character pitch is tiny! Agents can get a much better sense of your work through a full query and sample pages. If you get to the end of #DVpit and didn’t get the requests you wanted, look through the list of participating agents and query everyone you think is a good fit for your work, even if they didn’t favorite your tweet. You know these are folks looking for diverse voices and stories, so query away! (Just make sure they rep your category/genre first! And also, don’t mislead them into thinking they favorited your pitch if they didn’t--a normal query letter is fine!)

2 - Research, research, research. As with any twitter contest, you are under no obligation to query everyone who favorites your pitch. Look up the agents, see who else they rep, check out the agency they belong to, etc. If you feel like the agent isn’t a good fit, don’t send them a query. If they seem great, let those emails fly!

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

MOLLY: I echo everything Isabel said! She’s brilliant as usual.

I think it’s helpful to tweet several versions of your pitch throughout the day – there were some projects I skipped over when the writer first tweeted about it, but that later caught my eye when presented in a different way.

Remember that it’s just a 140-character pitch. Your writing is ultimately what’s most important. If you don’t receive many requests, it has no bearing on how talented a writer you are. I’m happy to see your query and sample pages even if I don’t favorite your pitch!

Tell us about The Call, Isabel!

ISABEL: It. Was. Everything. Molly was the perfect balance of friendly and professional. She both loved my book and had amazing suggestions for how to make it better. (And this continued to be true after I signed! Molly’s edit letter was amazing. She asked all the right questions to get my brain spinning with possibilities, and that’s a huge part of what I wanted in an agent.) After the call, two of her clients got in touch with me, both of whom had amazing things to say about Molly as a person and as an agent. I’m thrilled to pieces to be one of Molly’s clients, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for us next!

Give us the pitch that hooked your agent!

ISABEL: “17yo Hannah Walsh is out and proud about her attraction to girls. Being a witch? She’s still very much in the closet about that. #DVpit #YA”

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

MOLLY: I loved the dichotomy there: that Hannah is both in and out of the closet in different ways. Everyone has a facet of themselves that they might be reluctant or afraid to show the world, but Hannah has one – being a witch – that she literally can’t tell most people about, not without endangering everyone around her. I think there are many teen readers who can identify with that feeling on some level, unfortunately.

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

MOLLY: I’m looking for anything that feels fresh, unique, and unapologetically honest in its depiction of the inner lives of children and teens, whether it’s contemporary or fantasy. There’s not much I’ll say “no” to based on concept alone. It’s the writing that’ll really hook me.

I’m continuing to seek out #ownvoices and I can’t wait for the next #dvpit. Finding Isabel felt like a lightning strike—I only sign a small handful of clients a year and it had been a while since I’d fallen in love with something so completely—but I’m hopeful that lightning will strike twice!

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

ISABEL AND MOLLY: Thank you, Beth!

Isabel Sterling (@IsaSterling) lives in Central NY with her girlfriend fiancée (!) and their two cats. After competing in NaNoWriMo on a whim in 2012, Isabel fell in love with writing and hasn't stopped since. Isabel writes stories full of magic, where queer girls can have kick ass adventures and fall in love.

Molly Jaffa (@molly_jaffa) is a literary agent and the Co-Director of International Rights at Folio Literary Management in New York City, which she joined in 2008. She represents YA and MG fiction and nonfiction, as well as the occasional picture book. Her clients include Julie Murphy (#1 New York Times bestselling author of DUMPLIN’), Mahtab Narsimhan (award-winning author of MISSION MUMBAI), and Natalie C. Parker (author of BEHOLD THE BONES and founder of Madcap Retreats). She lives in Brooklyn with her fiancé and an 18-pound ball of orange fluff named Donut.