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-
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
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-
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.
Goodreads Link: https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/59011461-seton-girls
Author Website: https://www.charlenethomasbooks.com/