Three-book deals. Manuscripts going to auction. Offers from the Big 5 Publishers.
These had all seemed like dreams to me. Literally, dreams towards which I could reach yet never even hope to achieve, to cross that yawning abyss in-between. Wishes from the highest star in the sky at which I could only gaze and gaze and gaze.
Until last month.
I don’t think it’s sunk in until this very moment, when I sat down to write this post — that I am going to be a published author.
I AM GOING TO BE A PUBLISHED AUTHOR!!!!!!
BLOOD HEIR, my ANASTASIA x SIX OF CROWS YA Fantasy, will be published as a trilogy by Delacorte Press / Penguin Random House in Summer 2019. The story follows a blood-bending, fugitive princess and a charismatic conman who forge an unlikely alliance to unmask and unravel the corruption gripping their kingdom—and to redeem themselves from the shadows of their pasts. You can read the first chapter here.
BLOOD HEIR is written with a diverse cast, many of which are beloved and dear to a third-culture kid like myself (please note all cultures are pseudo; the world is fictional, but inspired by certain cultures/countries): a tawny-skinned minority of a Russian-esque princess; a disowned and dishonored Asian-esque assassin; an islander/Caribbean-esque child warrior; a Middle-Eastern-esque soldier). All of them are outcasts; all of them are displaced, somewhat, by the sole virtue of being who they are.
I write fantasy, but my story draws inspiration from themes I see in the real world today. As a foreigner in Trump’s America, I’ve been called names and faced unpleasant remarks — and as a non-citizen, I’ve felt like I have no voice — which is why I’ve channeled my anger, my frustration, and my need for action into the most powerful weapon I have: my words.
BLOOD HEIR is an examination of what makes us different from those around us — be it the horrific ability to manipulate blood or the many reasons why my characters are a band of outcasts — and how we internalize others’ fears of the things that make us stand out. It is a journey of self-acceptance, and a realization that we cannot change who we are or what we are born with, but we can choose what we do with what we are given. It is a story of friendship and love that extend beyond prejudices. And above all, it is a call to action: a message to young readers that it is our choices, not our birthright or race or title, that ultimately define us. Each of us has the choice — and more than that, the responsibility — to stand up and fight for what we believe is right.
We live in a world where I see so many others hurting, like me; where I see fear used as a weapon by those who choose to hate; where I see the age-old monster of prejudice drawing lines between those who are different. My pen is my sword, my words are my voice, and I hope BLOOD HEIR will be a guiding light to those who need it most.
On a recent Skype session with my parents, my mother told me in tears that, when I was around 8 years old, I said to her one day: “Mama, I want to be an author!” And she gently sat me down and told me the reality. That so few authors make it — and fewer, still, make it big. That many still struggle on in pursuit of their dream. That I have to decide whether I want a life of comfort — one that my parents have gifted me — or a life of uncertainty, potential financial duress, and, very possibly, never having my books see the day of light.
I chose. For my entire life, I’ve prepared myself for a career in finance, telling myself it was the more realistic choice, that success stories for authors came true once in a blue moon and that dreams were something only Cinderella’s fairy godmother could grant with a wave of her wand.
The past two months could not have proven me more wrong. From my success with #DVpit to getting my dream agent to my submissions process … I hardly ever cry, but I’m tearing up as I write, because it has been three months in which, every single day, I have literally seen myself and my book take one step and another, closer, towards catching that bright, bright star of my dream.
I write many stories (hopefully someday I’ll do so for a living), but here is one of the most important stories of my life.
Many of us read the “I Have An Agent!!!” posts, and the journey seems to stop there. There are fewer success posts on submissions and actually getting published, so the process had always been a complete mystery to me. Thankfully, I have the Best Agent Ever, who handheld me throughout the process and answered all of my embarrassing Publishing 101 questions. On a December Friday in 2017, after a very short revisions period and with my final agreement, Pete and I went out on submission.
To be honest, I don’t really remember that completely nondescript, ordinary Friday. Looking up some photos on my phone, I see that my boyfriend and I, along with some friends, went to a Tchaikovsky concert at the Lincoln Plaza. We had ramen for dinner. We went to The Aviary NYC afterwards. I was excited to be on submission, but I knew the process usually took months. I also knew the chances of rejection were still ever so high, as it had always been throughout my entire publishing journey. So, I went in, hopeful but cautious, optimistic but grounded, impatient for news but realistically telling myself it would be at least a few weeks before I heard back. After all, editors had to read my book, then get their entire team to read it, then get it approved by the acquisitions board. And the odds of jumping through all those hoops were just so minimal.
I do remember thinking to myself: If Pete doesn’t send me an update within two weeks, I should check in.
Life, fate, or Lady Luck — maybe all three — would prove me wrong.
The weekend passed uneventfully — a lot of food, I think hotpot, and some general Manhattanite weekend events — and then came Monday morning. I remember cracking open my eyes for work that Monday. I usually check my emails (both work and personal) before I haul myself out of bed and dress for the day. That morning, sitting in my inbox, were two emails from Pete, both forwarded, both from editors, and both titled something very standard, like “BLOOD HEIR by Amélie Wen Zhao” or something.
I clicked in. My heart started pounding as I read, and read, and read.
They loved it, and they couldn’t wait to discuss. The editors’ notes were crisp, not long and waxing poetic, but I read and re-read them throughout the course of my day, and each time, my heart would give a little skip.
Similar to how the process had been when I had been querying, once I received an offer on submissions, things really started moving at breakneck speed. So, instead of emails trickling in, Pete and I arranged to have a call later that week. He led me through our submissions list, and I remember my eyes growing bigger and bigger and my mouth opening wider and wider as I heard, “she’s loving it” and “he’s really excited about it” over, and over again. And at the end of the call, Pete told me something that will stay with me forever: “Rarely do I see such universal, wide-sweeping love and acknowledgement for another debut as I see for yours.”
Later that week (literally around one week after we went on submissions), we received two pre-emptive offers. From publishers I’d only dreamed of being published with.
(Note: For those who do not know — and I know I didn’t know this two months back — pre-emptive offers are offers with an expiration window [from hours to days] and frequently large advances attached to incentivize you into accepting them.)
I remember staring at them, my eyes popping out of my head.
And we turned them down.
“Are you certain?” I remember asking Pete, and being the Best Agent Ever, he very firmly told me as it was — and the fact that we were waiting for offers from multiple other publishers.
“It could lead to an auction,” he told me that night, and like in a cartoon, his words echoed in my ears long after we hung up.
Pete was right. Two weeks after we went on submission, I remember having one of the busiest days at work. My clients were escalating on some of my deals, I was furious with the internal teams for lagging behind on the timeline for those deals, and my stress levels were through the roof … and then I started getting texts from Pete.
Multiple editors wanted to get on the phone with me before the weekend! So they could send in their offers on Monday!
It was the best day ever — in a dizzyingly hectic sort of way.
By Monday, just two weeks after I’d gone out on sub, we received all the offers. I was sitting at my desk when Pete’s texts and emails started buzzing up, and I remember I jumped up in my cube when the first offer came in, my heart pounding, my palms sweating. I had enjoyed my phone conversation with all of the editors who had a chance to call before the offer deadline — I remember I told one that I just couldn’t stop smiling on the call. They all loved my book so much. They were all so enthusiastic. Most of the offers said they would publish me as a lead title at the House…! And this time, all of the offers waxed poetic about my book, effectively melting my heart right onto my desk as I read them.
Pete took the auction to three rounds; it concluded that Wednesday. Then came the hard part: I had to choose. Yes, I work at a bank, yes, I negotiate deals for my clients, and I don’t give a single second’s thought to being firm or even harsh at my job. But when it came to my book … it felt different. This was something true to my heart, to the secret dreamer Amélie who has clung on for all these years. To have multiple publishers love that tenderest, greatest part of me, was beyond anything I had ever asked for. And now, having to reject all but for one … I actually felt so unfathomably sad.
I Skyped my parents for hours that night. I spent the whole evening discussing pros and cons with my boyfriend, trying to draw out a list with mathematical weighting and percentages that we in finance so often like to resort to when making difficult choices. I agonized with two of my best friends (the only people I had told about my submissions process). In the end, I remember one of my friends laughing and proclaiming, “This is like choosing if you want to go to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Stanford!”
The next day, Pete had some updates for me. And here’s where I once again have to emphasize the importance of getting the Best Agent Ever for yourself — one who will go the extra mile for you, who will do the most detailed research to the entire extent of his capabilities. Because that’s what Pete did for me. He had gone out to colleagues who had work experience from all of the prestigious houses that were offering, and asked them for opinions — because I’d simply had amazing calls with all of the offering editors, and we had to move on to external factors to evaluate.
Guys, it literally was that difficult. It was down to the wire.
In the end, there was one (amazing) editor that we kept going back to, from her lovely personality to her immense enthusiasm for my book to her publishing experiences with multiple bestsellers.
And that is …
KRISTA MARINO from Delacorte Press (Random House)!!!!!
My Message To You
I always like to write blog posts that have some sort of a motivating message at the end, and my friends tell me I write with a “dramatic flair,” so here’s a typical (albeit unusually emotional) Amélie-esque blog post ending…!
Let me backtrack to one year ago today, when I posted the snippet below on AbsoluteWrite (yes, I hang out there a lot!). It’s crazy how time works. Almost exactly one year ago today, on January 23, 2017, I was in a complete rut. My finance job was draining me (14 hours a day), I was struggling to finish my book, and I had no confidence that my words would ever see the light of day.
Looking back at the girl above, I’m honestly tearing up. She was struggling to find her direction in life, questioning whether her passions would lead to a brighter path or a complete dead end. Whether her life would be ordinary, or whether she would be among the dream-catchers.
That girl never gave up.
I never gave up.
I’ve kept my writing dream a secret my entire life — less than ten people knew I was working towards finishing a book for most of 2017 (until I joined Twitter!). Most of my friends are in finance, or in the non-book-world — so they respected my dream, but it was quickly put to the back of their minds, just because it was such a far-off, distant, and unthinkable dream that was completely, galactically, out of my life. Even my boyfriend, the love of my life, had his moments where he forgot that my lifelong dream was to publish a book.
Despite all that — despite the fact that probably three people had read my work, ever — I kept going.
And now, I’ve reached the stars.
So you — yes, you — if you’re reading this and you have a lifelong dream, a passion that burns a fire within you, remember this story. Just one year ago, I was questioning everything I had ever dreamed; I was wondering what if everything I’d been working towards and reaching towards was hopeless after all? But I had this passion blazing within me, brighter than the fire of stars, and I knew I could not live a life without trying to reach those stars.
For now, I’m allowing myself some peace of mind. After countless years of honing my craft and quietly smithing my words with no recognition, I have reached my stars.
Don’t give up.
I wanted to thank some incredibly important people who have enabled me to get to where I am today.
First, to my parents, who raised me with kindness, with open eyes and an generous heart to accept people from all walks of life. Thank you for taking me all around the world when I was a child, for introducing me to different cultures, and helping me learn to accept, embrace, and love people and cultures that are completely foreign. Thank you for giving me my multi-cultural education; for inspiring me, with your education and hopes and idealisms, to pursue a better world. You gave me a perfect childhood and a perfect family and a perfect home; your daughter’s going to give that love back to the world now.
To my sister, the other half of me, without whom my life would be completely, completely different. You are my best friend and my soul sister. From fighting every day as children to growing up and being the closest in the world, your support has meant the world to me. I remember when you would critique my work with a million angry comments of things that annoyed you — and how, when you read the latest draft of BLOOD HEIR, your genuine admiration for it took my breath away.
To Clement, the love of my life. Thank you for all the before-bed talks, for letting me cry into your arms on my worst days, for threading your fingers through mine every night before I fall asleep, for protecting me from ghosts and the Grudge, for fighting over pillows with me, for listening to me obsess over fictional things, for watching Disney movies with me, and for loving me with all your heart during my best and worst times. Thank you for being so proud and supportive when I came home that day with life-changing news. You’re my storybook prince and love story come to life (albeit a very logical, stoic, no-nonsense one who is OCD about being on-time).
To Peter Knapp, my beloved agent who was the first to acknowledge my writing, who took me from the slush pile, who’s been on this rollercoaster ride with me, who calls me at night and on weekends because I can’t talk at work, who read my manuscript more times than I did and still loved it. I still remember that gray Beijing morning your email came in and changed my life.
To my real-life friends — those who knew about my writing, and those who didn’t — thank you for surrounding me with positive vibes, for believing in me, and for inspiring me. You guys mean the world to me, and I’m so incredibly lucky to have all of you in my life.
To my Twitter writing posse — you guys know who you are. Twitter changed my life, and I’ve met so many wonderful, caring, and supportive people and friends in the past few months. We’re all a team, and I’m so glad to have you guys in my world (all over the world!). We’re the A-team. (Although, who am I kidding. We’re a shrieking mess of papers and owl poop and spilled coffee backstage.)
To all of the inspiring editors, publishers, and agents that I have had the chance to get to know throughout this process — you guys have the best and most important jobs ever: to fight for a better world that we authors can only dream of through our words. Thank you for believing in my words — your acknowledgement and support truly meant the world to me.
Lastly, to all of my readers, and those who have supported me along the way — never forget the power of words, and that they can change worlds. Your comment or encouragement or simple “congratulations!” might have truly meant the world for me and changed my world at some point. I know that, at many times, I needed it. And I hope your words will change worlds one day — whether it’s mine, yours, or the world.