Once upon a time, like everyone else, I had a story. And like all stories, I made ways for it to be told.
As a child, I inhaled the hardbound book series my mother bought me until the pages were musty, and I have memorized which story was in which section of which book. I used to sit down tiny troublemakers so their parents can quietly listen to the sermon in their pews (for the same reason that I didn’t want to sit quietly in the pew and preferred to, you know, make trouble). I loved stories, I loved children, I loved mischief, although I can’t always stand it. And so, I told stories to young crowds for almost two decades, taking tales from books or weaving new ones as I go, until one stuck with me for a very long time and haunted me for years.
The story I had was with me since I was eighteen. It was a silly story, but I loved silly things. I loved secrets. I loved cowards becoming courageous and the confident becoming soft. I loved opposites. I loved hearts rattling and bending and then blooming into new forms no one has expected to be there. And this story was made of those.
I believed in it like a mother would in her child, and when the final dot was set, when I typed “The End,” I knew I had to do something with it. Maybe publish it on my blog. Or enroll at one of those writer apps so my work can get a few reads. I wasn’t expecting much when I came upon a tweet, and that changed everything.
It was called DVpit, “a Twitter event created to showcase pitches from unagented, marginalized voices that have been historically underrepresented in publishing.” Maybe I should thank my connections from #1001Knights who must have liked a tweet and made it appear on my Timeline, because at that moment, I literally jumped on my chair, read more about the event, and decided to pitch my story, right then and there.
It was mindless, I know. The pros would tell you to never pitch a story that has just gotten through the first draft. But I was a noob. And I was excited. I was a Filipino living in the Philippines who never thought anything was possible for me, and I decided to throw my hat into the ring. “Who knows?” I kept telling myself as I constructed my tweet. I wasn’t expecting anything to happen. But I was hoping against hope something would. That me sending this story out into the world would invite miracles.
A miracle did happen. My pitch had likes! From real, literary agents, nonetheless! I was smiling goofily to myself, singing and fist-pumping as I sat to write my query emails the next day. The. Next. Day. I was excited! I was also completely ignorant. So ignorant that when my first query actually had a request for a full, I mindlessly sent it in. No revision passes. No typo check. Just unadulterated, sheer joy.
And then, I received a No.
The first of many.
This happened in 2017. Me, the amateur writer. Me, the amateur querier. I was sending out emails recklessly, not know the weight of it all. That I was, at that moment, shooting aimlessly at the moon. That I was slowly reducing my chances of getting a good agent after sending one query after another without taking a pause and looking at my work. Without polishing my words. Without making it make sense. I was reeling at the praises I got my rejections – one agent told me, “Your prose sounds like poetry” (this is a YA Contemporary). “Your premise sounds amazing.” “Not for me, but wishing you good luck.”
It was only halfway through the year when a kind agent gently told me my faults. The rejection I received that day came in chunks of paragraphs after a full was sent. She had it all listed down: the premise was catchy, the scenes were descriptive, but my characters’ actions and motivations were quite confusing that it was hard to nail down the story itself. I read her letter with new eyes and kept it in my inbox. From that moment on, there was a new goal in my heart.
I won’t be sending my book out with zero expectations.
I intend to get published. And I will work on my manuscript until that happens.
By 2018, the dream was clear to me: it doesn’t matter who gets my book. I just want it out there. I just want the youth to enjoy my troublesome five, swoon over their (mis)adventures, and fall in love with the main characters. Maybe they’ll learn a lesson, too. And maybe they’ll have the courage to face the world and speak out with their quiet voices.
When I opened my manuscript for my post-new-year edits, I finally saw what’s missing. Identity. There was no sense of place. No sense of culture. And at that moment, something clicked. Instead of setting this up in a fictional world only I knew, why not bring them here? In the Philippines?
That moment was a game-changer for me – the moment when I decided this manuscript was going to be full-on, unabashed Filipino.
I wrote songs for it. Wrapped it around a university setting. New Adult was such a fresh, new term, and there were agents who specifically asked for it. In my opinion, the adventure begins at college – because that’s the time a child is finally on their own. They were free to make mistakes and keep secrets and get exposed for them. What fun! The overhaul was just what this manuscript needed. And by the time I was ready to query, I was feeling confident.
Unfortunately, confidence wasn’t enough to get an agent’s yes.
My first manuscript wasn’t going anywhere. The small percentage of agents who asked for fulls kept saying, “I liked the premise, but the story wasn’t exactly how I thought it would be.” By 2019, I was in a slump. I was ready to break this story in half, cut off many of my beloved characters, and leave the two mains for a college romance. That was the only way. I began drafting the new story with a broken heart, because I knew that even if this was the more logical, more publishable direction, this wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to debut with the silly, stupid story I first wrote. This was not it.
I chose to set the story aside. Then, began dreaming of a new one.
The new one was different. It was fun, sparkly, full of whimsy, a magical romp. After a few tries on the first chapter – forgive me, I do not outline novels – the story began falling into place. It was gloriously unplanned. Serendipitous. An accidental miracle, like finding something so precious without actually looking for it.
By August 2019, I made it halfway through the tale, and ended it. I was not willing to back out on my firstborn. I picked my first manuscript up and went on querying, only to be met with more passes. More Nos. More “Not for me.” More silence.
The dream of debuting with my silly, stupid story wasn’t happening.
It was February 2020 when I had a shift. Mind you, I’ve had many shifts. I met a local author on a Sunday and he asked me what I was writing about (my dad has mentioned I was pursuing publication). He knew a publisher and they only needed a good project proposal. Maybe I could get published there, he said. But I told him the stories I wanted to write were for the kids. For the youth. And in my heart of hearts, I still held on to my old dream. To my old manuscript.
When I got home that day, I began thinking, “Maybe it’s not that book. Maybe I could get published abroad, but with something else.” With a new DVpit coming up by the end of April, I decided to finish my second book. My book of pure serendipity. It kept surprising me, as if the story has long been waiting at the tip of my fingers. The story wove itself and by March, MARIKIT was finished.
By April, I ran through revisions. 51,000 words of Filipino myths and Tagalog words in between. I was ready to jump back to DVpit. I was ready to know my fate with this book.
Three pitches were sent out on Spring’s DVpit. Just like before, I didn’t expect much. My story was strong and polished, but maybe it needed more revisions. More tweaks. After the past few years of querying, I had writer’s anxiety. Still, I was going to take all the agents’ feedback – should I get any – and use it to better my work.
MARIKIT’s pitches had about twenty-five agent likes, including some of my favorite folks in the industry. When I was ready to query in May, I was ready to go by batches. “If I don’t get a yes, then I’ll try again,” was what I told myself. Queries were sent to nine people, with me crossing my fingers each time I pressed send.
Soon enough, my queries got responses.
My first full request was the agent of an up-and-coming Asian author whose book I really liked. And then, another from an older, established agency. There were a couple of Nos, (“This is too much high fantasy for me”), a couple of radio silence. And then, the most awaited email happened.
My first Email for The Call arrived when I was asleep. On a May morning, as I stretched my hand to grab my phone while I turned in my bed, I saw a notification. “Re: Query: MARIKIT WEARS THE MAP TO THE ENGKANTOS (Middle Grade Fantasy). Usually, when I get query replies, I’d give myself time to ready for the response. It’s a No. It’s gonna be a No. Anyone who has been receiving Nos for three years could only think this way.
I opened it.
There were paragraphs. Paragraphs after paragraphs. The kind agent who must have read my full must have felt so generous that day to leave me her notes. I’ll take it. I’ll take everything, I told myself.
Without second thoughts, I dived into her email, reading those chunks sleepily at the side of my bed, when I saw this line:
“While reading, I kept thinking to myself, This book is so important.”
And then, further down:
“I would love the opportunity to speak with you by phone and discuss your book further. I’d like to hear more about your vision for it, and I’d also be happy to share my editorial thoughts with you, if you’d like.”
There was a scream so loud in my head as I sprang up, unable to even process this news. I’ll have a call! The call! Of course, the call could be anything – I mean, it could be a revise and resubmit – which meant more work, but that’s fine! I’ve never been to this stage before! And now I’ve gotten closer than I ever was!
The call was scheduled in June. Yes, that June 2020, when a lot of things started happening to the world. And a lot of things happened to me, too. It was an Offer of Representation – my first ever – and I was literally crying after the wonderful agent hung up. I couldn’t believe it! It’s happening! I’m closer to getting published!
That email stirred a few more responses. Some passed. Two agents asked for fulls. And one more agent asked to get on the phone with me.
Melanie was one of the liveliest people I have ever talked to. From the moment we started our call – which was a bit awkward, by the way, considering the difference in time zones and the choppy internet connection we had in the Philippines – I was at ease. I also first asked her, “Am I a ghost?” This was not me being edgy. This was me checking if the poor Wi-Fi we had was at the least working.
We immediately dived in. The literary agency she was in was one of my agency crushes, ran by brilliant, empowered ladies who worked with amazing writers that consistently put out great books. I submitted to Melanie knowing that she loved Studio Ghibli, and Marikit had a Spirited Away vibe that must have spoken to her. Our call went on for around an hour; she answered my questions even before I asked them. And despite just talking through the phone, I could feel her passion for her work and for her agency.
She wasn’t very specific in genres, she told me, and I could work my way in YA if ever I was ready. The people she offers representation to were those whom she felt were “her people.” That sounded nice, among the many other perks of being a part of Root Lit.
A couple of days after the Summer Solstice, Marikit’s birthday, I accepted Melanie’s offer. And here we are, a good year later, with a two-book deal from FSG BFYR. My manuscript, originally titled as MARIKIT WEARS THE MAP TO THE ENGKANTOS, will hit the stores come October 2022.