Finding the Joy in Your Story: Marzieh Abbas
"Write what you want."
As much as that advice is doled out, it's also contradicted:
1. Write what you want but make sure it's marketable.
2. Write what you want but this genre is dead.
3. Write what you want but make it trendy.
4. Write what you want but don't add a prologue.
And the list goes on and on...
While it is true that publishing is a business and certain things come around that are "hot" (albeit the window for this hotness often proves narrow), at the end of the day writing what you want usually shows in your writing. When you're not really writing what you want, it also shows. Have you ever picked up a book and just "felt" the characters, "heard" the voice, "connected" with the words? If you answered yes, then more than likely that author was writing what they want--albeit, probably with guidance and revision along the way (that's normal!), but regardless, the stories we want to tell are the ones that call to us and demand to be told.
And eventually, they find readers for generations to come!
Read on for more about Marzieh's journey in creating stories that sparked her joy!
1.Welp, the first question is the one all in the writing community love to know! What’s the background story of your writing and how did you eventually sign with your agent?
I began writing in May 2019. When I started, it was basically a couple of books I was writing to and for my own kids. I had recently sprung back from PPD and had put a halt to my very lucrative baking business that I just couldn’t manage anymore. Emotions were raging within me- I wanted to channel them into something productive and writing, like baking, has always been very therapeutic for me. My first couple of books were acquired by International Muslim publishers after a couple of months of sending out queries (the Muslim niche publishers obviously work very differently from the mainstream market.) I was thrilled! I got to polish them with editors and chose my own illustrator for one of the books (Hamza and Aliya share the Ramadan Cheer). In July I began thinking of taking a writing course and found Mira Riesberg’s Children’s Book Academy. I applied for a scholarship and won it! I learnt so so much in a short period of time, made some great friends, and created a book review group called Children’s Book Reviews (CBR Global). It sprang out of a challenge to read a 100 books before putting pen to paper. Around August 2020, I sold my third book, called ABCs of Pakistan, to a prestigious local publisher, In March 2020 I had 2 completed picture book manuscripts, that in hindsight were not query-ready, but at that point I felt confident. The rejections began flowing in and for every rejection I sent out my manuscript to three more agents. During this time, I also queried my current agent and she passed after requesting more work. I continued to take short courses and attend webinars with The Writing Barn and Storyteller Academy and continued to polish my manuscripts and write a couple more. In August I queried another agent at the Seymour agency (with another manuscript) who passed my manuscript on to a colleague (because her own PB list was full). Thereafter I heard back almost immediately from Lynnette Novak, who asked me to send more work. I only had one more manuscript (a revised version of the manuscript Lynnette had already rejected) that I truly felt confident about. I reminded Lynnette about the rejection, but told her the manuscript had been through considerable revisions. She appreciated the changes and scheduled a call almost immediately. When I received her offer, I had 2 more agents interested. I turned them down after I spoke to Lynnette, because I truly connected with her!
2. The first rule of sub club is that we don't talk about sub club. Or do we? Can you share more of your publication journey with us?
At the time I signed with Lynnette, both of my manuscripts were with a medium size publisher after likes from a #PitMad event. After I signed with Lynnette, they both went through a couple of rounds of revisions and unfortunately (after months of work) eventually the deals fell through at acquisitions. But I wrote a new manuscript, and it was acquired within a month of being on submission by Feiwel and Friends, Macmillan. This was the first manuscript Lynnette put out on submission for me.
The chapter book series opportunity came about in February 2020 when an editor approached my agent with the idea. They wanted two sample chapters and had specific requirements for the series. I also had to submit a pitch for 5 other books. I submitted one complete book instead of the two chapters and the pitches. They loved it!
3. The birth of your second child was your catalyst to writing for children? Why?
I love the message of hope in children’s books. And wring hopeful endings is truly what pulls me through some of my tough days. I feel picture books are for every age- I often recommend them to my adult non-author friends ☺
4. Drumroll please...you have not only one but over six picture and chapter books coming to readers in 2022-23! Congrats! Can you give us a little more insight ont the picture and chapter book process? How does it differ from writing MG and YA novels? What’s the key to telling a story in so few words?
I’m very new to writing MG- I’m currently working on polishing my first verse novel. Picture books and chapter books are super short in comparison. But they still need a plot, a simpler one of course, but a plot nonetheless. They need setting, story tension, rising and falling action, a climax, and a cast of characters. In picture books, the main character needs to show some growth by the end. That is very challenging in 500 words, or less. Chapter books, especially those for young readers, are generally requested by publishers, but the market for them in growing, and I’ve heard of some which have been pitched by agents in the traditional way. At the base of it, the process is all very similar. You have to dedicate yourself to learning the craft. You have to read, read, read. You have to polish your work based on your critique partners’ feedback. Picture books do require an economy of words. It’s almost like poetry, where very few words have to convey a lot of meaning. In that sense it is very challenging. Chapter books for early readers involve a lot of telling (show don’t tell advice goes out the window). So each category has its own challenges.
5. While picture books are for small children and babies, they are usually read to them by adults. When writing picture books, how do you keep both audiences in mind? When submitting, do you have to pitch your books to appeal to small children, the parents, or both?
When writing, I only keep the children, my ultimate target audience, in mind. I want them to see the characters doing things that they can relate to. As authors, the ultimate success is seeing kids reach repeatedly for your book. I think that is only possible if kids connect with the main character. Once I’m done with my first draft, I look over it to see if a parent would find anything offensive in my book. When revising to pitch, I always keep an editor in mind. I analyze the feedback I’ve gotten on previous manuscripts and what is selling in the market.
6. One of your debuts, A Dupatta is… is an #ownvoices informational picture book. Recently, the hashtag was retired by WNDB and some publishers due to the term being morphed into something way off-base from its original intent. Did you always see this book as ownvoices? Would you change it now? What message do you hope to send to readers who find themselves in these pages?
Well, I personally see editors and agents still using it. I feel the term still has utility- I want to read stories written by people who identify and have been immersed in a specific culture—I also like the nuances pointed out by such writers, as these are true and unique experiences. It is coming from an untainted lens, so to say, and that’s what makes it so personal as compared to an onlooker trying to make sense of a culture foreign to their own. I think some agents might revise their MSWL terminology to clarify this, but I don’t see editors making that change just yet.
7. Ok, I have to know. What is the editing process like for a picture and chapter book? Superfast? Pleasant? Not-so-fast?
Nothing in this industry is fast! ;) But, it’s been really pleasant, and the relaxed pace of things has given me a lot of time to contemplate changes. I’ve enjoyed feedback from my agent (who is thankfully super editorial). I have bounced off ideas, or turned down ones with my editors that haven’t resonated with me.
8. How do you keep a balance between motherhood, writing, and personal life? Do you think it’s important for writers to set boundaries between writing life and other parts of their life?
I wish we could set boundaries, but it hasn’t worked for me. It’s a constant balancing act! I do try and wake up a couple of hours before my kids and enjoy the time I get to write and revise with a hot cup of chai. Somedays, when I really need some quiet time, especially when I need to consolidate feedback from my critique partners, or when I need to plot something out, I drop the kids to my mom’s place, or lock myself in a different room, while she feeds and entertains them. I’m so grateful for her!
9. As an author living outside the U.S. (traditional publishing’s mega-market), how do you keep yourself “in the know” with publishing news? Does it present any challenges to connecting with other writers or industry professionals? What tips would you give to non-U.S. authors in terms of connecting to the writing community?
When I started off, I felt I’d really miss out on all the in-person conferences, but since the majority of my writing time has been during COVID, I’ve been able to attend webinars (sometimes I have to wake up at 4 A.M. for classes), conferences and interact with my critique groups over zoom. The Writing Barn, Highlights Foundation, Writer’s Loft, Storyteller Academy, SCWBI regional webinars, 12x12 webinars have all been great. My critique partners are super helpful, as have been the #WritingCommunity on Twitter. Recently published books (that serve as mentor texts) are my eyes into the American market.
Ok, now it’s time for the ‘fun’ questions!
10. The perfect comfort bake for a day of writing is...
Hmm, the days I bake, I only bake! Since I’m a baker, I bake in bulk to send to neighbors, family and friends. So baking day is never writing day! I do love a good cinnamon roll though, with extra cream cheese frosting to get me through a tough day of drafting.
11. Your post-debut vacation would be where?
Somewhere high up in the mountains.
Raised between the bustling cities of Dubai, UAE, and Karachi, Pakistan, Marzieh is a baker-turned-author who loves poetry, traveling, reading, and samosas. She is a member of SCBWI, 12x12PB and a graduate of the Children's Book Academy, Lyrical Language Lab, and The Storyteller Academy. She is active on Twitter where she continues to form connections with the Writing Community, runs a kidlit review group on Facebook and blogs about her author journey and life in Pakistan on Instagram. She is represented by Lynnette Novak at The Seymour Agency.
Chapter Book series under contract:
NADIA AND NADIR (ABDO Publishing, Fall, 2022)
Picture Book under contract:
A DUPATTA IS… (Feiwel and Friends, Winter, 2023)
Goodreads link: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/19824634.Marzieh_Abbas
Website link: www.marziehabbas.com