By Maggie Apostolis
We were lucky enough to find you through a Twitter event! Have you previously participated in Twitter pitch events before #SFFPit 2021? What were your experiences?
I got frustrated with pitch contests because it is hard not to get excited. It's not the same thing as querying because I had actually queried TMZ Day for about a year and a half. It was not ready when I first started querying it if I am being honest. But when you are querying, you don’t know if that X agent didn’t like your concept, or pages, or maybe something isn't right with the query itself. But with the Twitter events, I would get super excited, because oh my god, look at all these agents who like my concept, but your heart is still broken and you know it wasn’t because they didn’t like your idea. But at the same time it is still treated as a regular query. Though some people are different, like The Seymour Agency, who requested the full, others only just want your query and normal amount of pages, so it didn't feel very different from usual querying. I wish more people would request fulls or at least partials for pitch contests.
What I did find helpful from Twitter pitches was finding agents who would not necessarily show up during your search. By the time I got to #SFFPit, I wasn’t even going to do it because it felt like an exercise in futility and heartbreak, but I decided it couldn’t hurt at the last minute. And when I got the two-month response time from your agency, I thought, oh, this is different I’m glad I decided to give it one more go.
How did you discover your love of writing?
Shariya: Writing was definitely something that I've done my whole life and what I've always wanted to do. I always joke that I ruined my mom's life, hahaha, she had me at nineteen and always wanted to be a screenwriter. She never pushed it on me, but I grew up watching movies with her, and she would say, ‘oh, this is the pinch, this is leaving the ordinary world, or this is the mentor character’. That became the way I always viewed movies.
Though I have a deep love for books, I got tired of watching bad movies. So, I told myself I could write a movie when I was a teenager, and though I did love books, I always told myself it was too hard to write a book, and I would never been able to do that.
Well, you did write a book, a great one at that! How old were you when you first involved with writing?
Shariya: I want to say I wrote stories when I was little, but I always told stories. I didn’t really write them down. But when I reached middle school, I would write what I called song lyrics, even though what it really was, was poetry.
In high school, I was annoyed with movies I loved, like Mean Girls, and I got frustrated because these were not like real-life high school experiences at all. Like Regina George would get punched at my school. I wrote a little story, well, a screenplay called iTeenager, which was about what it was really like growing up in high school. I did some short stories and prose in high school. I wrote my first real screenplay that is a movie now, which was changed a lot for it to be made into a movie. But that was all in high school, and then I went to college for screenwriting.
Is it safe to say movies have a huge influence on the writing you do today?
Shariya: Growing up with two geeks for parents was a huge influence for me. My mom and my stepdad are both black, my stepdad is from the south side of Chicago, but he loved Star Trek. Growing up with a Trekkie stepdad and a Star Wars geek in my mom, my mom will watch every horrible Syfy movie of the week, she would watch them every Saturday, and I grew up watching these repeatedly. Growing up without a filter as a child, I wasn’t just forced to watch Disney, I’d watch whatever my mom wanted to watch, I would want to watch. But she would always shield my eyes. I have this great memory of going to see Starship Troopers in the theater with her. I was like nine or ten, but you know all of the gratuitous violence I witnessed was just fine, but as soon as the infamous shower scene happened, she covered my eyes.
Growing up without this filter allowed me to see movies and even read adult books at a young age. I read Jane Austen when I was tiny, which I think totally destroyed my love life. I always joke with my friend when I was younger that my dream man was Mr. Darcy meets Hans Solo, and she would always tell me how awful that combination was. Now that I am older, she is right. That sounds awful.
This lack of a filter opened my eyes because I did not know that stories could do certain things and play with all of these crazy storylines like Event Horizon, for example, might destroy many adults because it’s super scary. Still, I watched this pretty young and was impressed. I was amazed by the idea of a spaceship going through an alternate dimension and coming back from hell effectively possessed. It never even crossed my mind. I was like, that’s so cool! I didn’t know stories could do things like that and that helped me expand my horizons on what kind of stories could be told.
How have you personally witnessed your writing change over the years?
Shariya: I personally am a plotter. I do not get married to the original idea or the original outline, which was not the case when I was younger. When it did not work, I used to force it to happen. My current work in progress, TMZ Day, is a great example. It is an old concept that I had, and all of the basic ideas are still there, the game, the main characters, but it was all just an excuse for them to be good at slaying zombies. But one day, I saw a really cool picture, which blended into my love of Outrun and the vaporwave aesthetic, which made me realize this could be an excellent cyberpunk story. Younger me would have been more married to the original idea than expand it to the larger world and a new storyline.
Would you say school affected your work?
Shariya: The creative writing classes I took in high school and at community college helped. I was taking college classes while I was still in high school. I feel like those helped because I wanted to tell a particular story. When I workshopped the first part of it, everyone in the class hated it and said it was stupid, basically. I refused to listen to them and was like, no, I will keep writing it, and when the second part of the story came out, everybody ended up really liking it. Which turned out to be a huge lesson to learn.
In film school, that was a little different because screenwriting is much more rigid. Which is one of the main reasons why I prefer novel writing. With screenwriting, there is an entirely different skill set. They really teach you to work within the confines which definitely includes length. Novel writing has this too, in particular for debuts, but you can do a lot more in 100k words than you can in 90-120 pages in the way they are formatted in a screenplay. Another good example is budget, which can really stifle creativity. You might have a really cool idea that you know would really increase the budget of the movie and leave it out for that reason.
I felt like my school, in particular, was all about the Auteur Theory and doing everything yourself, but that also favored the director over the screenwriter and I think both end up hurt by that method. My best friend and I directed one of our movies together (which by the way was rewritten to reflect the smaller budget we had to work with). We laugh all the time that some of the things that we learned in college ended up hurting us when we were making our movie because it was all based on fantasy and fairytale. "Do everything yourself; that's the true nature of the artist" is what they would preach, and I genuinely don't believe anyone knows what the true nature of an artist is. Even authors who get to do much more of “everything” themselves still have critique partners, beta readers, agents, editors, etc. that all have an effect on the end story result. I think most creative writing endeavors end up being a collaborative effort in the end and that screenwriters can learn a little form authors in fighting more for their idea and authors can learn a lot from screenwriters in collaboration.
You do not have to go to college or anything like that to get better at your craft. I didn't learn what I knew about novel writing from school. I truly learned a lot from Youtube, which has inspired me to start my own Youtube channel. Even if you are watching the same topic from multiple people, you are still getting new perspectives and ideas. For example, I learned a lot about filler words through Youtube.
What would you like to witness change about the literary world?
Shariya: I think I am starting to see a change happen with having more people of color and, of course, black people, but all people of color getting more representation. Sometimes we take a step forward and think that is enough, but we are still thirty steps back, so I think that still needs a push. The work isn’t done yet.
But also, I feel the industry is a little sexist. When it comes to genre fiction, especially in YA, there is this common theme that girls do not like sci-fi. The Marvel series is top-rated, half their audience is women, and it’s sci-fi. This is what they said about high fantasy ten years ago, and today fantasy is dominating women centric markets, like YA. “Most readers are white and they don’t want to read POC main characters.” Now people are demanding these stories, proving that idea wrong. And yet they still say this for sci-fi, even though fantasy has proven that the old rules no longer apply. I don't understand why an industry that claims to be so woke can still operate on these archaic ideas. Teenage girls aren't reading any sci-fi because there aren't any books out for them and even when they are they aren’t marketed towards them. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in some ways. They are not being marketed because they have decided girls do not like it.
For example, Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron. She tried to sell the novel ten years ago but had trouble. It was not until Black Panther came out and made a billion dollars that she able to finally sell it. I think the industry is constantly chasing trends into the ground. They claim zombies are dead, vampires are dead, no one wants to read this or that anymore. Girls don’t want sci-fi, no one wants African inspired high fantasy. These things have to be proven untrue before they can change, but often times people rarely get the opportunity to even attempt to try to prove those “truisms” incorrect. People want more vampires; they just don’t want to read Twilight a hundred times with new characters. Agents and editors, you read their interviews, and they say they cannot predict future trends, but then in the same breath say no X or Y or Z because they are “dead” and no one wants to read them. Could anyone have predicted the popularity of the Red Queen or The Hunger Games before they happened? The answer is no. “Kids killing kids in a competition? That’s not marketable!” There should be “unmarketable” or not “popular” books available on the market because that is how the next trend is found.
Is writer's block ever a challenge for you?
Shariya: I like to joke that I do not suffer from writer's block; I suffer from not knowing what to work on. It is more of procrastination or a laziness thing. If you are suffering from writer's block, you are you are stuck especially if you are a discovery writer I suggest trying to plot out what will happen. It doesn’t have to be everything, but I am all about knowing what happens in the story because, yes, you can go back and fix things and change things, but I preferably like to know where a story is going. Even if it is just the bare bones of the story.
If you know where you are going, you can work toward that goal. I feel like writer's block comes from not knowing where to go and not sitting down and really understanding what story you’re telling or what happens in X troublesome scene is what’s blocking you. Maybe even working on something else because I tend to juggle multiple projects, so if one is giving me issues, I will put that down and let it simmer in the back of my head while I work on something else and that way I don’t feel like I’m stuck or not doing enough writing. Having that distance can change your perspective and you might just see right through a problem that was impossible before because you were too close to it.
Where is your go-to place to write?
Shariya: I usually write in my house because it’s convenient, but when I have the time the beach is a go-to. Living in Hawaii, I can go to the beach pretty much anytime. Reasons not to write are never helpful. Unlike at home, a beach is a great place because it is free from distraction. My PlayStation isn't in the corner and my laundry isn't able to catch my eye, so I can focus solely on my writing.
One of my favorite spots to write is also coffee shops. I used to be a barista in Hollywood, where lots of writers would come in. I was fortunate enough to meet some of my favorite writers during this time, for example, one of the writers of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World or The Descendants. I always loved that environment because of the people-watching aspect of a coffee shop can really get the creative juices flowing because of the random conversations, the random characters, and situations you come across.
Are there any tips you can offer to authors who participate in future Twitter events?
Shariya: Do not overexcite yourself just because you get a like. But also, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get one. There are a lot of pitches, and it is tough to find things. Sometimes agents just straight up didn’t see your pitches. Also, if you want to feel better about yourself during a pitch event, look at one of the Tweets with over two hundred likes, and you will see it’s not two hundred agents liking that tweet.
I found out the hard way sometimes it is actually about the pitch. One of the stories I was working on which is very marketable and sellable didn’t get any attention. It wasn't as digestible in tweet format, especially when you remove characters from the Tweet because of the hashtags. Just because you are not getting any likes does not mean no one wants your book or that it would not sell. That is just not true. Some stories are more pitchable than others.
Also, I’d suggest checking the other Tweets with similar hashtags to yours. You might find agents you wouldn’t otherwise and even though they didn’t like your Tweet, you know they like your genre so look into querying them the traditional way. It can be a really good way to find agents who fell through the cracks of your agent search.
What about for non-Twitter event authors? What piece of advice can you offer them?
Shariya: Research. Research. Research. Whether that’s writing conventions, agents, or just anything about this industry you want to start a career in.
So many times, you often only get one shot. You want to believe that people will not remember you, but I've even had agents remember me by name and project in my experience. They weren’t even full requests, standard form rejections. I used to think they got way too many queries to remember mine, but sometimes you leave a mark. You want to put your best foot forward, so do not query projects you know need to be polished or are not complete. I have done it, and I know if I put more work into it, I would not have received a rejection. The tiny little things can lead to the project getting rejected, so you want to make sure your book is as strong as you can make it before the query. The better state your work is in, the more legitimate the reasons agents will have find to reject you.
You want to put your best foot forward and not give them any easy reason to say no.
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