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  • Writer's pictureElnora Gunter

As I Am: Jackie Khalilieh

"Can you make it more like...."

"I wanted it to....."

"I wish this would've..."

"I was looking more for..."

"It should've gone this way..."

"This isn't ____enough..."

"Make if more like that show or other book..."

Write for yourself is what they say. But what happens when you want to your stories to see eyes beyond your own?


Sometimes--maybe a lot of times--you get some of the above. Agents, editors, the money people who give the final say, and even readers have expectations, but what happens when those expectations want YOU to change? And not plot or genre change, but a change that pecks away at your authenticity until its a merely a mold of what someone else wanted you to be? Do you quit? Sell out? Keep the course as a shallow shell of yourself?

Or do you grab the pick and throw it back? Hammer away until you get the heart of you and your story, creating something that you're proud and passionate to see your name on.

That's what author Jackie Khalilieh did. Read on for more!

1. Welp, the first question is the one I’m sure you’ve answered many times but everyone loves to know. Please tell us all about your writing journey!

I actually haven’t answered this question ever in depth. I was going to make a blog post about it on my website but was so overwhelmed by the prospect of summarizing everything, I decided not to (I’m very much an all-or-nothing type).

Like most writers, I had a strong imagination early on. Once I could write, I started with (bad) poetry, comics and short stories. I also kept a journal from the ages of ten to twenty-two. In high school, I wrote a one-act play and was always the one who wrote the scripts in group projects—my love for dialogue goes way back. When the Internet became a thing, I created a website where I wrote about celebrities and movies I liked. That’s also the time I started dabbling in General Hospital fan fiction.

After high school, I got into a competitive Journalism program. I was thrilled. That thrill was short-lived. I knew within the first week that it wasn’t for me. Eventually, I made the most of things and found my niche (broadcast journalism, lifestyle and entertainment stories). I was proud of the accomplishments I’d made in the four years I studied Journalism. I’d been published in a national newspaper multiple times, did an internship with ABC News, interned at local tv stations and magazines. I had a decent, well-rounded portfolio and was convinced it would help me land a job.

It did not.

Turns out, networking plays/ed a big part in that industry and I’m just not that person. (I didn’t know why at the time. My autism diagnosis came years later). A few months out of school, I decided it was time to pivot.

I pivoted to teacher’s college and received a degree in elementary school teaching. For eight years, I worked as a teacher at the elementary level before moving on. Teaching was a good fit for me at the time. It was steady and allowed me to be creative, but once I had my first child, I knew there was no going back.

I had another daughter within two years and was content to focus on raising my family and running my household while my husband accelerated in his career.

When my youngest daughter was three-and-a-half, my brain started swirling with ideas and questions of: what’s next? I tried to push those thoughts away. I wanted to be content with raising my family but there was something stirring up inside me, this need to create. And it grew stronger every time I watched a movie or read a book that made me feel things. I thought to myself I want to make people feel things. I CAN make people feel things.

I’d gotten this idea to write a book and told myself I wasn’t allowed to start writing it until I had a plan (I didn’t even know to use the word outline at that point lol). For six months, I daydreamed and came up with characters and scenes and wrote everything out in my Notes file on my phone.

In January 2019, I cracked open my old laptop and started writing the book which would end up being my debut.

I think it’s important to note here that I didn’t do any research on “how to write a book.” I just dove in. I think that’s probably the best thing I could have done (for me). If I had known how much work would be involved, how much I didn’t know, and what an uphill battle it would be, I probably wouldn’t have even tried. Ignorance can be bliss.

I set small goals for myself at first. Complete a draft. I did that in three months. Then I started revising. After about two rounds of revision, I connected with a critique partner who ended up being a perfect fit for me.

In January 2020, I started querying. I stopped after receiving a bunch of rejections, figuring my query letter needed work. I workshopped that, queried again. Received an offer of rep around May (I did not accept—long, messy story) and then continued to query and revise, query and revise.

I had a decent request rate and I was getting actionable feedback (hence all the revising). I was also doing well in pitch contests, but something wasn’t working. During that time, I wrote the sequel to the book (I KNOW, I KNOW we’re not supposed to do that but it worked out for me!) and by August 2020, I had started a third book (a fresh idea) I was really excited about. It made the idea of shelving my first book more bearable.

However, as a last-ditch effort for book one, I applied to Pitch Wars and received two requests. I pulled out of Pitch Wars a week before announcements because I’d started querying book three and was getting a lot of interest. It was really hard to withdraw from Pitch Wars and I still don’t know if I would have been chosen or not, but I followed my gut (and impulsive nature).

I ended up receiving two revise and resubmits for book three. One of those revise and resubmits led to an offer, which I happily accepted in February 2021.

After I withdrew book one from Pitch Wars, I emailed the last few agents who were still considering the book to let them know I was shelving it. One of those agents responded a few weeks later with a lengthy email detailing why he was passing on the story, what he liked about it and what wasn’t working. I thought to myself, wow, he’s nice. And decided to shelve it anyway. But then in December 2020, his feedback clicked and I had a new vision for how to revise book one. So, I spent December and January 2021 rewriting it.

I had a good feeling about this version.

When I signed with my agent, Valerie Noble, for book three in February 2021, I told her about book one and how I’d recently revised it. Since book three needed extensive revisions before going on submission, she agreed to read book one. She read it and loved it! After a few more smaller scale revisions, we took it out on sub!

During sub, I had one revise and resubmit, which led to a pass but it made my manuscript stronger and that’s ultimately the version that led to my book being acquired.

One more thing I want to say about my writing journey: When I left journalism, part of me thought I’d failed as a writer. And I think that’s why I didn’t write for many years. Just because Journalism wasn’t it for me, didn’t mean I wasn’t still a writer. I was just wearing “the wrong size shoes.” If writing is your passion, then write!

2. Your social media often includes updates during your writing process. Can you tell us what it’s been like to edit your debut novel, SOMETHING MORE, with a publishing house editor? What fears or myths would you dispel about editors as sometimes they are viewed as people who “just want to change everything about your book”?

Something I’ve learned about working with an editor is that different editors will have different visions for your story (or no vision at all) and it’s important to find someone whose editing style and vision lines up with yours.

Had I ended up with the first editor who offered me an R&R on Something More, I think my story would have been a lot different than it is now. While I agreed and appreciated her feedback in the first round of edits, her reasons for passing showed me that ultimately, we wouldn’t have been a good match. Our visions didn’t align.

It’s so hard not to take things personally in this business, but an agent and/or editor who doesn’t love your story or get your story or has a different vision for your story than you do, is really just doing you and your story a disservice.

3. As a Canadian author writing contemporary and women’s fiction, do you find yourself writing within Canadian social norms and culture or being more intentional in incorporating American social norms and culture in order to have a greater appeal to the U.S. publishing market?

I grew up very heavily influenced by American media. Back in the 80s and 90s, it was clear American productions had more money backing them and therefore a more polished result. But our content was still really good and we went there, especially with teen-related shows. It was less bubblegum and flashy and a lot grittier and raw (think original Degrassi High vs. Beverly Hills, 90210). I think I’ve incorporated both styles in how I write.

The cultural divide between the US and Canada growing up, in MY experience, is that US media was slower to have more diversity in their casts (when I was a teenager, diversity meant a brunette love interest).

In terms of young adult and “teen” media, the States seemed to place more of an emphasis on proms and football games and weird contests where you’d vote people best dressed and most popular, as well as SATs, which as far as I could tell was a standardized test you took on a random Saturday. So yeah, at times, the States did feel like this different place, especially when I started high school and was bummed to find I didn’t suddenly grow boobs and have a booming social life like all the movies and shows promised.

My books so far all have been set in Canada. My editor had me change all spelling to American and instead of saying Grade one, for example, it’s first-grade. Little changes like that to make it more appealing to an American audience. I’m also a first-generation Canadian of Palestinian immigrants, and I think that has been reflected in my writing more so than Canada vs USA.

4. In what ways is writing YA contemporary different from writing adult contemporary? Is it similar in any way?

Pacing is SO important in Young Adult and this was a big lesson for me while writing my first book. You have to basically start in the action with YA, there’s less time for readers to get to know the main character. It’s a challenge to write characters readers will care about while also diving into their story immediately.

With Adult, especially in women’s fiction, character-driven stories may give you more space to flesh out the story in a more natural way. It’s less about let’s see what mess this character gets herself into and more, let's figure out why she is the way she is (at least in my experience).

For both, voice is very important. As are three-dimensional characters—not just the main characters, all of them.

5. Your main character in, SOMETHING MORE, is part of the Palestinian diaspora and also autistic. While intersections of identity have always excited sometimes publishing doesn’t always compute that a BIPOC character (or writer) can be something else besides a racially marginalized person. What advice would you give to authors who are dealing with this lack of acknowledgment as they go though their writing journey?

When you’re writing about an identity (or in my case identities) that haven’t been explored nearly enough in young adult fiction (or really fiction at all), you feel a big responsibility in “getting it right.” And part of that is because while you’re querying or even sometimes working with editors, you’ll get “corrected,” for how you write certain scenes or bits of dialogue.

I was told by a writing professional that they didn’t agree with how I’d executed “autism” and that I should read books by a certain autistic author to see how they did it. When I tell you my jaw fell to the floor! As if ALL autistic experiences were equal. But that’s the reality when you’re a marginalized creator. People have their pre-conceived notions of what it means to be you and you often have to push back, which isn’t always easy, nor well-received.

I’m an autistic female, as is my character Jessie, and the rep in my book is going to look a lot different than the male autism rep most people have seen or read. And it will also differ from books with other female autistic characters.

I’m Palestinian but I’m not Muslim. I’m Greek Orthodox. I celebrate Christmas and Easter, so there goes another assumption.

The great thing about this book is that I can open people’s minds to what it might be like to exist as a female, Palestinian-Canadian on the autism spectrum. I do worry that some autistic people and Palestinians wont like the rep I’ve provided because they don’t/can’t relate to it personally. But I can only share my experiences. I’m also not out here to educate my readers on the history of autism and Palestine. My characters and stories are more than these identities. Just because you know one of us, doesn’t mean you know all of us.

6. Do you know when you’re at risk of burnout? What’s your form of self-care?

I am always at risk for burn-out lol. I’m a mother who still runs the majority of the household and childcare Monday to Fridays. We have a high-needs dog. I have this new career I’m trying to establish which means more than just finding time to write (the self-promotion is HARD!). I struggle with anxiety and perfectionism and I’m constantly worrying I’m not doing enough for my family or producing enough in my career. Especially when I’m comparing myself (STOP DOING THIS) to others. My self-care SHOULD be more walks and exercise, but it also means reading or watching tv and movies to refill the well. Listening to music always. Going off on little adventures alone. Just me and my headphones.

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

7. The SOMETHING MORE Spotify playlist would include….

GAH! I already have a very curated playlist which will be a prominent feature of the pre-order campaign for Something More! So I cannot reveal those songs, but my character is obsessed with the 90s, so there’s a lot of songs of that era. I’m also a Swiftie and my character and I love, love songs, so do with that knowledge what you will.

One song that didn’t make the cut on the playlist but was close: This Is Me Trying by Taylor Swift.

8. Unpopular book or writing opinion?

**I have a few.

That you have to be a prolific reader. I am not. I am a SLOW reader. Audible is my new best friend. But I think there are lots of ways to learn the craft of storytelling (tv shows, movies, music, theatre). Reading IS very important but I think the focus placed on writers to read prolifically, while writing and also studying all the craft books…nah.

Another unpopular opinion: I think writing like sports, involves a degree of raw talent. I could train every day to be an athlete and I would only get as good as I could personally get—meaning, I would never make it to the professional level. And (I feel like people might come at me for this) while writing does improve the more you do it, I also believe some people are born more natural writers than others. I’m sure people can and will prove me wrong on this lol.

Last thing, finding an agent and editor who loves your book, your writing and “gets” you as an author is amazing and validating. Outside of that, publishing as a business doesn’t care how strong a writer you are or how beautiful your prose is. They want your book because 1. Someone else wanted it first 2. They’re chasing a trend and they think you might be lucrative 3. They’re trying to fit a spot on their list. And I’ll leave “spot” up for interpretation. 4. You’re “somebody.”

9. The ultimate writer’s office window view would be

Hmm. I love the “alive” feeling that comes with being in a city and surrounded by so many people (even though I don’t love being around people) but image C looks way too far up and I don’t do elevators. Image A is too much water. So we’ll go with B. My favorite place to write is my bed or home office.

I have a Bachelor of Journalism and a Bachelor of Education. I no longer use either degree (unless you count writing about failed journalists and overworked teachers). I currently write YA Contemporary and Women’s Fiction which tends to be character driven (whether I mean to or not), honest, funny (if I say so myself) and full of hope. My main female characters are always Palestinian-Canadians, like myself. I’m a mom of two girls who inherited all my “best” traits (thanks universe). I’m based just outside Toronto, Canada.

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