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  • Writer's pictureElnora Gunter

And Still I Rise: Charlene Thomas

Keep Going! Don't Give Up! Just keep at it!

How many times have you heard these words?

If I gave a you $100 for every time someone told you that, I bet it would pay your rent or mortgage for the month (hell, maybe even for two months...or three!)

But what do you do when those phrases fall flat. When they feel more like stones being thrown at you throughout a very long, arduous journey? Do you keep going? Give up? See a therapist (that's expensive btw)?

Well, I don't have the answer but let me tell you what author Charlene Thomas did. She took a break.

And then she came back. Rested and ready to attack.

So keep on reading for the tale of how she did just that!

1. Welp, the first question is the one all in the writing community love to know!

What’s the story of your publication journey (writing the words-querying-agent-

published book)?

Of course! I don’t think I’ve shared this story in its totality anywhere yet?!

So, let’s see…like a lot of us, I started writing “books” when I was really little. I think I

wrote my first one when I was seven or so? For years I did it for fun, and it wasn’t until

high school when it hit me that writing books could be more than just a hobby. So that

was when I first started researching (aka googling on dial-up internet) how things

become published.

My senior year, I won the National Novel Silver Award from Scholastic Books (as part of

their National Art and Writing Awards), which made me feel *good* at this whole writing

thing. I decided to try and find an agent (for a new MS, not the one that won the award

from Scholastic) and had an offer after just a few queries. Unfortunately, I didn’t end up

with a *good* agent, faced some tough lessons—after she had me remove all

references of Being Black from my pages and also rewrote full paragraphs of that MS

without my permission—and, luckily, that MS died on sub.

My confidence, for a few years, died with it, though. For a little bit, I didn’t write at all,

and then I started writing again but only for me. It took a few years before I was brave

enough to wade back into publishing, and I finally decided to query again with a new MS

in 2019, I believe. It had a huge agent request rate, but ultimately no offers, and as

much I’m still kind of obsessed with those characters, I know the story had some holes

and that it ultimately needed work.

So, while that book was in the trenches, I wrote what would become SETON GIRLS. I

had a very targeted querying strategy (based on what I learned from my first agent and

what I learned from my last query round—which is that lots of requests doesn’t always

mean lots of offers). I started sending out a handful of queries at the beginning of 2020,

to agents I’d really researched, and got a full request from Ann Rose at Prospect

Agency around March. I sent it over, and I want to say that it was ~two months later that

she sent me a very thoughtful email. It was full of praise for my style, my voice, the

characters, and the overall concept, but there were things she’d want to change if she

were going to be the one to try and sell it.

And while she completely understood and respected that this was 100% my book and I may not want to change a thing, she said she’d love to talk to on the phone if I was open to chatting about it.

Obviously, I was open to chatting about it.

So we hopped on, had an amazing conversation, brainstormed so many ideas—and I

wasn’t even a client at the time?? But we spent maybe an hour talking about SG and it

was so evident how much we both loved it, so I was excited to take on her request for

an R&R because I knew that this wasn’t just any R&R.

And I also, coincidentally, had been playing around with a rewrite already.

That’s the thing with me…I feel like I’m always writing, editing, reworking until the

moment when I just know it’s right. Sometimes you know because the industry validates

you, or because your soul does, but I was still in that tweaking stage, and I already had

different versions of the words I’d written that I wanted to share with her.

So, I took the weekend to read over the beginning of the rewrite I had already started,

and sent it her way on Monday. It was a partial. ~30K words. I just wanted her to see

this latest direction. A couple weeks later, she asked for a call again.

I hopped back on the phone, expecting feedback, more brainstorming, etc., but it was

actually an offer. She said she just knew this book was gonna be special when I finished

it, and she wanted to be able to really work on it with me. And I wanted to find a partner

in this industry who didn’t want me for a story but because they genuinely believed in

me and what I’m capable of, and I knew—in that moment—that that was what I found.

So that’s how Ann became my agent! That was July 2020 (I know writers like to keep a

timeline in these kinds of stories LOL).

So…that meant I actually had to finish writing SETON GIRLS, which I did, and sent it to

Ann on Labor Day weekend 2020. We made some small edits (it was a pretty clean

draft since we’d talked so much about it when I was only 30K words into it) and then did

a pass with Prospect’s intern, Mikaila, whose fresh eyes were SO helpful. Around

November, we were really happy with where the story was, but it was so close to the

holidays that we decided to start subbing at the beginning of January 2021 instead.

Editors got back to us relatively quickly. I had a handful of passes and two R&Rs by

mid-Feb. But Ann and I had a lot of confidence in this story and were still out with a lot

of editors, so we decided to at least get through a round one before exploring any kind

of major revision. I can’t really explain what made us so sure that the right editor was

going to love the book for what I envisioned it to be, but we just had a feeling and I think

it's really important to just listen to your gut sometimes.

We got our first offer (from a Big 5!) in late March. It did NOT feel real and I had such an

amazing phone call with the offering editor. But we were still out with a few other

editors, so we notified them of the interest and waited two weeks to see what would

happen. And that was when we got our second offer, this one from Dutton/PRH, and

from the minute I talked to Andrew, my editor, about my book, I just knew that was

where my story and I belonged.

And it’s been incredible, honestly. I am so grateful to have such smart, kind,

powerhouses in my corner right now, between Ann, Andrew, and the awesome team at

Dutton. And if there’s anything I’d want to add for anyone reading about my journey right

now, it’s that it doesn’t have to be yours. It shouldn’t be. It won’t be. As writers, I know

we try so hard to add predictability to the ambiguity, do made-up math to back ourselves

into keeping our hope alive. But the thing is, all we can do is all we can do. Be kind to

yourself and keep telling your stories, and dreaming your dreams, and believing in the

stroke of luck that we ALL need in this industry, and your journey will happen exactly the

way it’s supposed to.

2. Your debut, SETON GIRLS, is described as “a smart and twisty debut YA that

starts off like Friday Night Lights and ends with the power and insight of Dear

White People” Can you tell us a bit more about those comps and how it captures

the heart of your book? What will pull audiences who enjoyed Friday Night

Lights (ME!) and what will pique the interest of viewers who watched Dear White


Ok, first off, why was Friday Night Lights SO GOOD?! I feel like it’s a show that

unites a whole generation of millennials, lol. I’m due for a rewatch again soon. It

also feels a little surreal sometimes to comp to such an iconic show, but here’s

why I think lovers of Friday Night Lights and lovers of Dear White People will,

hopefully, find a story that they love in SETON GIRLS:

Similar to FNL, SETON GIRLS centers Seton Academic High School where

football. Is. Life. Their Varsity team has been undefeated in regular season

games for the past twelve years. And their newest Varsity quarterback, Parker

Adams, wants nothing more than to be the first to ever bring Seton home a state

championship, too, before his successor (Seton’s first-ever Black quarterback, J

Turner) gets to take a crack at it next season. But at Seton Academic—a lot like

how it was in FNL—football stretches so much farther than what happens on the

field. It’s a culture that’s permeated everything, from how they throw parties, to

how they celebrate holidays, to how they define who they are. I’ve always been

so intrigued by worlds where the inanimate controls so much of the tangible,

where there’s that feeling of being part of something bigger and that’s what

drives everything else. That’s the thing: SETON GIRLS is not a football story.

You don’t have to understand a thing about football in order to understand

everything about the book. And for all the FNL fans out there, I think we’d all

totally agree that the same is very true for that show.

As far as Dear White People, that show has such an insightful way of casting a

mirror back on society. It looks at things that are really happening to minorities in

majority spaces in a way that becomes bigger than just an hour-long TV show.

It’s not just gripping and entertaining, but it’s actually a social commentary on the

way that we are and the things that we do. And I think that SETON GIRLS, a

book that’s fundamentally about privilege and the ones it scars, will leave readers

feeling a lot the same way. Like I said earlier, this isn’t a football story, but

football is really the mechanic these boys use—to feel powerful, to be winners,

and to maintain control over their tiny part of the world.

3. Your novel will explore high school football culture. Southerners and

Midwesterners are probably very familiar with how big athletics can be at the high

school level, but for some Coastal peeps that level of fanaticism might only be

understood for professional sports. Did you grow up in a town or place where

high school football was a big deal? How much did that influence Seton Girls? If

not, what type of research did you do?

I love this question.

So, I grew up in Montgomery County, MD, and we cared about football, went to

the games on Friday nights, but we didn’t care the way that Seton cares. My dad

actually instilled in me my love for football—he played high school football in

Alabama (one of those places where high school football is a big deal) and is

also an alumni of Auburn University (where football is life), so I was exposed

from the moment that I was born to what it’s like when football is religion.

So, SETON GIRLS is really kind of an imagining of what would happen if those

two worlds came together. If the prep schools I grew up around (I didn’t

personally attend one) believed in football the way my Alabama family does.

4. You are a self-proclaimed chaotic plotter. Can you describe what the writing

process looks like for this? When under contract did you feel as though your

approach to revision and drafting change? Or just fall more into place?

Of course! When I say this about myself, I—quite literally—mean that my drafting

process is pure and utter chaos.

I’m not a huge plotter. I have an idea of major “moments” before I start drafting, but that

tends to change ~a zillion times once I finally start writing. I don’t write chronologically; I

go straight to the scenes that are in my head and that I’m most motivated to get on the

page. It’s hard for me to keep moving before a scene really feels right, so I tend to draft

slowly but then I have way less things to “fix” once that draft is actually done.

I also press the delete key a lot. Like. A LOT. If I’m writing an 80K word novel I probably

write ~150K words over the course of drafting in order to get there. I just…have to try

stuff. Get it on the page and see where it takes me before I realize something isn’t

working and I delete the last 20K words. It’s hectic but it’s art meets science and

magical when it all comes together.

That’s also why I feel like it’s ok for writers to just do what feels right. It’s ok if your

process looks “weird.” Or if it’s nonsense until the second it’s not. I don’t believe there’s

a right way to write a book. I think you kind of just have to…write it.

5. So um, your book cover has total Kimani True vibes and I am LOVING it. Was

this something you asked for? What went into the making of your cover? Did you

want a real person more so than an illustration?

Thank you SO MUCH. I’ve stared at it more than I’m willing to admit lol. And yes, it’s

pretty much exactly what I imagined. I couldn’t be more grateful to the team at Dutton

for creating such an incredible cover for this book, and to our amazing model who really

made the whole idea come to life.

For the record, I had *no idea* what I might want for a SETON GIRLS cover until the

moment when I suddenly did. Andrew (my editor) hadn’t asked me what I was thinking

yet, but it was getting close to that time, and one day it just hit me. I called Ann (my

agent) and was like “ok, hear me out, but what if we did the SETON GIRLS cover like

this?” and I basically described a girl facing the rest of us, in a beanie that said SETON

GIRLS. “Seton Girls” beanies are everywhere in this book, and I just envisioned this

really powerful image of a girl wearing one.

I didn’t have the details ironed out in my head, but Ann loved the idea and thought it

would be really cool if we could use a real girl vs. illustration to help the cover stand out

even more, and I totally agreed. And then we spent the next few days texting inspo pics

back and forth so I could have something to show Andrew and the team at Dutton when

the time came.

For my day job, I work as a marketer and spend a LOT of my time giving creative

direction on new assets for TV and social media, so I’ve gotten fairly used to helping

other people wrap their minds around the images in my head, lol. So that was basically

how I treated it—I wrote up a “mini-brief” and created a few mood boards, and when

Andrew asked if I had any ideas, I sent him what I’d pulled together. And he and the

Dutton team loved the idea (I was so happy) and started the search for models!

It was a true collaboration and the Dutton team had so many incredible ideas to tie the

cover back to the story even more. Like the pinkish/purplish lighting, which is inspired by

the neon lighting references in the first chapter while the kids are cosmic bowling. And

the “know what’s up” on the beanie itself is a nod to a Seton cheer that you’ll stumble

upon as you read. The center decal on the hat is an eagle because Seton’s mascot is

The Eagles. And probably my favorite part is the treatment of the word SETON. If you

look really closely, you’ll notice it’s actually those felt letters you’ll find on a letterman’s

jacket. There are seriously so many incredible details. And I’m just so happy with how

perfect it feels for this story and for these girls. I can’t wait for people (including myself!)

to be able to hold the real thing in their hands.

Ok, now it’s time for the ‘fun’ questions!

6. Your publisher is reaching out to an NFL quarterback to conduct a 15 questions

Vogue style interview for you to do together. Your top choice is?

a. Joe Burrow

b. Patrick Mahomes

c. Dak Prescott

d. Russell Wilson

e. Matt Wilson

f. Other choice

OMG. This is so fun. Hmmmmm ok. So, Patrick Mahomes is obviously amazing? And

was my fantasy QB two years in a row? So I totally have a soft spot there. And Russell

Wilson went to NC State while I was there (we actually had a class together, which I

doubt he knows lol)—so school pride will always connect me to him. And Joe Burrow,

funnily enough, looks exactly the way I picture Cooper Adams looking, who’s Seton’s

first undefeated quarterback and a key character in SETON GIRLS. (Although, I am

sure Joe is a much better human than Cooper.)

So…can I request all three? Can it be a panel interview?

7. Unpopular book or writing opinion?

Probably just the fact that I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to do anything.

Like…as taboo as it feels to say…I’ve never had beta readers. I’ve never had a critique

partner. I’ve never taken a workshop, or read a craft book, or majored in English. I did

get a minor in creative writing while I was in college, and I was editor of my high school

newspaper, but that’s the extent of my “training.” Instead, I read books that I’m excited

about. I consume a ton of content. And I dig deep to tell the stories I want to tell in the

best way that I can.

And I think that when you’re still querying, or on sub, or feel like publishing hasn’t really

given you that validation yet, it can be easy to question everything about your skill, and

your process, and your worth. But I just really encourage you not to. Everything I’ve

never done may be everything that works amazingly for someone else, and I think that’s

what’s so incredible about creating art. There’s no wrong way to do it.

11. The top mindless Bad TV binges are….

Thank you so much for knowing what matters to me LOL. Hm. Ok. So this is my very non-

exhaustive list:

 Most things on Bravo

 People building houses

 People competing to cook things better than each other

 A current genre fixation which I am calling British Chaos—which is basically Love Island

UK and all things similar

Charlene Thomas started writing as a child so she’d have more to read after

she’d gotten through all the books on her shelf. She was sixteen when she wrote

a manuscript that won the National Novel Silver Award from Scholastic Books,

and went on to minor in Creative Writing at North Carolina State University.

Charlene writes books about the world we live in, inspired by her experiences

growing up in Montgomery County, MD. She has a deep-rooted belief in people

and what they are capable of, and maybe that’s why she loves to create big

characters who are steadfastly determined to change their own little parts of the


When Charlene isn’t writing, she works as a marketer and will at times reassure herself that a long session scrolling Twitter counts as “research.” She’s always itching to learn more about what it is to be human, whether it be through international travel or reading a book that feels like magic. She loves happy

hours, reality TV, and words that give her chills, and her family and friends mean

the world to her. She earned her MBA from Emory University, and holds a

certificate in digital marketing from Cornell University.

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