The Dark Side of Ambition

As I work on my next newsletter (subscribe here!), I thought I’d re-share the reflection piece I wrote for the first newsletter I’d sent out a while ago, since it’s a topic close to my heart. For those of you who are also querying and are reading this for the first time, I hope it offers you the perspective I so desperately needed when I was also in the query trenches 🙂

We see so many success stories pop up on twitter.

Announcements about writers landing agents and book deals, writers becoming NY Times Bestselling authors or having their books adapted into movies, etc.

It’s hard to read these shining announcements without a twinge of grief and envy when you’ve been working toward that very dream for so long—without much results to show. You really start questioning yourself, and if you let it, the sense of failure starts affecting your self-identity.

This was my struggle for so long.

For many years, I was known as the ‘writing machine.’ I’d write from the hour I woke up and continue until late into the evening. It wouldn’t be unusual for me to sometimes write until dawn, when the night sky lightened and the birds began their vigorous morning orchestra. The birdsong would be my cue to roll into bed, catch a few hours of sleep, so that I could get back up to write some more.

After years of living this lifestyle, being a writer was the only identity I knew. If I wasn’t writing, I had no idea who I was, what else I was good at, what else I cared for. It was only me and writing. And so I gambled everything (my happiness, my self-worth, my future) on this dream of mine to get published.

I placed my life on hold. I told myself that once I succeeded, then I’d start living life. But not yet.

Around 7 years into this journey to get published, after an emotionally crushing round of Revise-and-Resubmits for two agents, I woke up to a terrifying thought: This dream of mine to publish, to even just land an agent, might not occur in the next few years…the next ten years…or possibly never at all.

A sense of failure, not just as a writer but as a person, weighed me so heavily.

Aneeqah shared a thought on twitter that basically consumed me 24/7 during this time:


I was feeling this bone deep.

I had spent years fighting for my dream, and with no accomplishments to speak for, I felt irrelevant, and the thought of remaining irrelevant for the next several years of my life devastated me.

This sense of irrelevance got so bad, so dark, that I’d wake up some days with a very cold, seemingly logical voice in my head telling me, “Don’t wake up. Just keep sleeping. There’s no point to this day.”

Sleeping in for as long as I could became my way of coping. I didn’t know what to do with my life, how to get through another day, when it felt utterly deprived of meaning.

I must sound dramatic to some. But take away the one thing your life has been all about, and it leaves you in a place where you just don’t know how to function, you don’t know how to live life when all that sense of purpose— that sense of drive—is gone.

For the next few months, while dragging myself through life, with barely any fight left in me, I began to question everything about my dream.

I asked myself why I’d wanted to get published in the first place, why this badly. Was it for the recognition, for the big Twitter announcement-worthy achievements that I was so desperate for? Was it for a sense of confidence and fulfillment that my insecure self ached for?

Then a thought swooped into my mind one day: once upon a time, I wrote books not for the public achievements or for the title or any of these external reasons. I’d started dreaming of publishing a book because I wanted to tell a story, to let my words reach into the lives of others.

And behind this? It was a longing to live a meaningful life, a life in which I could give something of myself to others—whether it be hope, perspective, or simply another world for readers to escape into.

Until this point, I didn’t think that apart from my writing I could be or do anything of significance. But for the first time in my life, I wondered: maybe I actually could.

This realization threw me into a whirlwind two-years of exploration, pushing myself out of my comfort zone, meeting new people, mending neglected friendships, going back to school to learn about teaching ESL, trying out online dating, meeting someone special, dabbling in teaching full-time, pursuing a position at the library that opened my eyes to a new passion: the library and its community!

This period in my life taught me to see my worth apart from my ambition. Bone deep, I now knew that my life was meaningful, that my life still mattered even without an agent or a book deal. June Hur—without any glamorous awards and only an inbox filled with agent rejections—was still very relevant to others, in sometimes obvious and most times hidden ways.

Then lo and behold…

As I placed less pressure on myself to succeed as a writer, my love for writing returned, and with it, the courage to fight for my dream again. But this time when I queried, rejections hurt a little less. This time I was okay with the prospect of a journey that might last for years, possibly decades.


Because I’d realized that whether I published or not, I could live with that, I could still learn to love life, I still mattered to people.

There’s something very freeing in this realization that you can have an ambition—but it doesn’t need to define you. You can have an ambition, and still be allowed to enjoy life away from your writing desk.





I don’t regret the sacrifices I made in the past for the sake of my dream.

I don’t regret wanting to publish so badly that every part of my life ached for it.

This was a season in my life where I was incredibly driven, where I chose to put everything on the line. It was all or nothing for me then.

But while I don’t regret this time in my life, and I definitely don’t judge those that choose to remain in it, this lifestyle was just not sustainable for me—it was suffocating me.

My hope is that by sharing this, someday if anyone needs it, my story will be a reminder of this: We all want to land on the stars. Specifically for those in the Query Trenches, we want to land on a star called ‘I’m a published author’. But as I shared before on twitter:

If you don’t land on the stars, redefine what it means to be among the stars. Redefine your definition of success. If things aren’t working out, remember there is a whole galaxy out there.

My point is not that I want you to give up. My point is, if you find that your ambition is bringing you pain more than joy, then once in a while, look away from your writing struggles and look around at the vastness of life. Be kind to yourself and strive for a balanced lifestyle. Don’t be ashamed that your journey seems to be taking longer than others. In the meanwhile, find other things outside of writing to look forward to, other things in life that will bring joy and a sense of purpose.

We are Creatives, so let’s be creative not only with our fiction, but with how we live our life as well.

Because the world needs you, not just your books, but you.



Interview with Literary Agent, Amy Elizabeth Bishop

Today I’m interviewing Amy Bishop (@amylizbishop), my literary agent extraordinaire of Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. She’s been such a wonderful person to work with: dedicated and encouraging, professional and competent, fierce and full of grit. I’m honored to be able to interview her here on this blog, using the questions asked by the writers over on Twitter!


June: Welcome, Amy! Thank you for making the time to be here. My first question is, what does your day as a New York literary agent look like?

Amy: I think one of the most fun things about my job is that there is no “typical day”—things are always a little different! But I’m usually in the office by 8:30 or 9 with coffee in hand (of course) and then I usually do a first check of my e-mail and triage, then start checking off follow-ups on my to-do list. I try to read slush in between the bigger tasks and usually will spend lunch (if I don’t have one with an editor) reading requested manuscripts. Bigger tasks usually involve edits, reading a client’s revisions, vetting contracts, drafting pitch letters or submission lists, and any larger administrative tasks that my office needs me to handle, among other things. I’m usually out between 5:30-6:30 pm and may have drinks with an editor; if not, it’s home to fit in a little more work reading before bed.

June: Whew, you work so hard! How do you manage work-life balance?

Amy: I’m sorry, I’m unfamiliar with that term. Kidding, kind of. My boss once said to me that being an agent isn’t necessarily a career, it’s a lifestyle. And I think that’s pretty much true of all of my colleagues here—because our day is so filled with administrative tasks, the bulk of our reading gets done at night and on the weekends, so it could easily be said that we work all the time. That being said, if I’m working hard all day on a Saturday or Sunday, I’ll try to take some time at night to go out to dinner. And I will say that I try very hard to not check e-mail during the weekend (though I don’t always succeed). It’s important for us to take time off to avoid burn-out and I try to keep that in mind.

June: What would you say is the hardest part of the job, or the thing you most didn’t expect?

Amy: Having to deliver bad news is probably one of the hardest parts of the job; it’s no fun for the author, or for me. The thing I didn’t expect? Rude replies to query rejections.

June: Yikes. It definitely must not be fun having to reject writers. But since it’s part of the job, what are your top 3 reasons for passing on a query letter?

Amy: 1) It’s addressed to Dear Sir (or dear Madam, or the wrong person entirely) and it’s clear the author didn’t put any work into their letter. 2) It’s offensive. 3) It’s a genre I don’t represent (though I often peek to see if it’s right for any of my colleagues here). Do note though, that in almost every case, I usually skim down to the sample pages to see the writing; we know query letters are hard, and it’s your actual writing that counts.

June: Any tips on how to write a solid query letter?

Amy: Have these components: why you’re querying the agent/agency; a brief (no more than a paragraph) pitch of your book; a bio/any writing credentials; comp titles (popular titles; published no more than five years ago in your genre); what you’re including in your e-mail (this should be precisely what the agency asks for, whether it’s a synopsis and the first 25 pages, the first three chapters, etc.); your name (this sounds like the dumbest thing ever, but I am constantly surprised at how many people don’t sign their query letters).

June: What is the best way to START a query? What should be the very first thing on the page (beneath the agent’s name – correctly spelled)?

Amy: There’s no hard and fast way to start a query. Read the submission guidelines for the agency you’re querying. If you have the components mentioned above, no one should be nitpicking unless they specifically spell out how they want their queries in the submission guidelines.

June: How important is a first chapter? If it doesn’t start with an absolute NUCLEAR bang, will it go in the slush pile? 

Amy: We’re looking at a first chapter to gauge your writing, so it’s important, but do bear in mind, if the rest of your novel doesn’t stand up to how good your first chapter is, a great first chapter won’t matter. And keep in mind, too, that starting off with an absolute nuclear bang doesn’t always have to mean in terms of physical action; I’ve been hooked by some great, quieter first chapters that just wound up tension in the most delicious way or had amazing writing I couldn’t put down.

June: How far do you usually get into full request manuscripts before you have this ‘sit up and take notice’ moment?

Amy: If I’ve requested the full, I’ve usually had that ‘sit up and take notice’ moment from their first 25 pages or their partial

June: On that note, what was it about my query letter and first pages that made you want to read more and eventually offer representation?:D

Amy: The fact that it was set in Korea (and that you were a Korean author) really made me sit up and take notice; I’m always looking for diverse work written by diverse authors. And the premise was really great—your explanation of damos and their role in Korea at the time was fascinating. I was also so intrigued by historical fiction set in Korea; it wasn’t something I’d seen in my inbox before. As for your first pages: they were lyrical, well-written, and made me want to keep reading!

HayleyJune: I was losing faith in my writing when you offered rep, so I’m forever grateful to you, Amy! I have a few more questions writers wanted to ask you.

For up and coming writers who want to publish their own work, what is the process of finding a good agent?

Amy: Research! Look in the backs of books you love or books that you feel are similar to yours. See who the agent listed in the acknowledgments is. Publisher’s Marketplace/ Poets & Writers both have agent directories. Manuscript Wish List and the #MSWL tag on Twitter are also great places to look. Google the agent and see what’s being said about them; if you have an offer of rep, ask to talk to some of their current clients and see how they feel about their agent. Don’t be afraid to quiz the agent either—it’s an important decision. If you can, talk to other writer friends who have an agent and see what they most appreciate about their agent/what they wish their agent would do more of; they can provide good insight.

June: How is the process of getting your book published? How long does it actually take? And how/when does the writer start getting paid?

Amy: In a nutshell: query à get agent à revisions with agent à book on sub à agent following up à offer(s) à negotiation of offer(s) à deal accepted à contract à contract negotiations à revisions with editor à editorial process w/copyediting, production, cover art, etc., à book on shelf.

There’s no good answer to how long it actually takes; it varies for everyone. However, once you have a deal with a publishing house, you can expect your book to be out between 2-3 years after that. Sometimes sooner, sometimes a bit longer (a bit longer especially if it’s nonfiction and you’re actually starting the process of writing the book/doing research for it).  The writer gets paid when the publisher pays out the first part of the advance once contracts are signed. Money usually flows through your agency and your agency will cut you a check or send you a wire once the money has been processed and they take their commission (industry standard is 15%).

June: What is the average time for an agent to sell a manuscript, and are there any issues with authors who live abroad and aren’t native speakers (as long as they manage to offer the same quality a native speaker could)?

Amy: I wish I could give you an average time—there really isn’t one. I’ve sold a project in a month and I’ve sold projects that have been out on submission for eight or nine months. No, we have plenty of clients who live abroad.

June: What do agents do when they can’t sell one of their writer’s books? What are all the things they try before moving on altogether? How much time? How many publishers? How do they tell their client and what’s next?

Amy: This depends heavily on the agent—and the book—but I can tell you what I do with my clients. I usually do “rounds” of editors – maybe sending to 6-10 editors for fiction; 15-20 for nonfiction. If one round is done (that is, everyone passes), I send all editor feedback to the client, along with a list of who we went to, and ask them if they want to consider revising (if there’s been enough helpful feedback) or if they’d like to go out with the project as is to another round. I continue to send out as long as there are appropriate editors to send to and the client wants me to keep trying; if the client would prefer to move on to another project at any point, we do so. I’ve sold books that have been out on sub for 8 or 9 months; one of my colleagues has a submission list with over 50 editors on it. But again, it’s variable, depending on who your agent is/how they operate and what the book is. Generally, if we’ve truly come to the end of the line, I again send a round up note with editor feedback/places we went, and try to gently tell them that I think it’s time to move on to the next project and that I’d be happy to brainstorm ideas or see what they’ve been working on next, and we go from there.

Amy1June: Wow, those were really insightful answers!

Are you open for submissions? If so, what kind of fiction or non-fiction are you on the hunt for?

Amy: Yes, I’m open for submissions! Like I said above, I’d love diverse work written by diverse authors; for fiction, I’m particularly interested in literary fiction, upmarket/book club fiction and literary thrillers in the vein of THE TWELVE LIVES OF SAMUEL HAWLEY or BARBED WIRE HEART, and some light horror. Would love to find a good YA thriller, like SADIE. For nonfiction, I’d love some smart pop science or historical narrative nonfiction or some platform-driven prescriptive nonfiction. A good platform is a MUST for nonfiction.

June: And finally, is there anything you’d like to say to writers?

Amy: Courage, dear hearts! I know publishing can seem like a long, frustrating path, but there’s tons of support and advice out there. Seek out beta readers or critique partners; take workshop classes on honing craft; look for writing communities online and in your area. You’re on your way!

Thank you so much Amy for answering these book industry questions, and for joining me here on this blog! Getting to know more about you as an agent was an absolute pleasure.

For those interested in querying Amy, check out her Manuscript Wish List and be sure to follow her agency’s submission guidelines before emailing her at

Interview with Joanna Hathaway, author of DARK OF THE WEST

Today I’m interviewing Joanna Hathaway, author of DARK OF THE WEST (May 2018), a breathtaking YA Fantasy debut. When I first heard of Joanna’s book on Twitter, I quickly looked it up and swooned so hard when I read the blurb:

Dark of the West is the first in a WWII-infused fantasy series about a princess and a fighter pilot on opposite sides of a labyrinthine conflict. Both must choose between national loyalty and each other as they try to stop their families from igniting world war…”

Not only did her book intrigue me, but I really came to appreciate Joanna herself. I consider her to be one of the most genuine, supportive and humble writers out there. That’s why I was incredibly honored when Joanna agreed to join me here on this blog!


* Your novel Dark of the West is a reimagining of Europe’s world wars. I’ve actually never read an “alternative history” novel but have always wanted to. Why are books that reimagine history important? What makes it so powerful?

Such great questions! To be honest, Dark of the West doesn’t quite fall into “alternate history” the way, say, Ryan Graudin’s fantastic Wolf by Wolf series does. The West world is entirely made up—it doesn’t take place on the timeline of our history, or any variation of it. However, the flavour and feel and technology are meant to mimic the 1940s from our world. The fighter planes, for example, are all based on WWII-era models, with details like how fast and far they can fly, and their different armaments, pulled from the actual advancement of aircraft during the course of the war. The story also deals with a familiar inciting incident: an assassination which launches world conflict. As a teen, I loved films like Band of Brothers and Empire of the Sun, so part of this book is definitely a military adventure, following my fighter pilot as he learns that war is no game. But the other half is pure Downton Abbey, full of fancy parties and people with secrets making veiled insults around the dinner table, and I love both sides equally! I wrote everything that I enjoy into this story—family drama, forbidden romance, court intrigue, airplane dogfights, realpolitik maneuvers. My obsession with the Wars of the Roses also ensured there are plenty of squabbling royals and old feuds as well!

In sum, the West world is meant to be an impression of our world, but not a perfect reflection.

As for why I feel these kinds of books are important… Well, I know a lot of readers don’t consider historical fiction to be their jam, and I get it. You know who wins, who loses. You know the inevitable twists and turns. For some of us, that’s the intrigue of those books—we know the Titanic will sink, and Anne Boleyn will lose her head, but we want to experience how it all happens. But for others, the excitement of fantasy is that anything is possible! It’s all new and unexplored. This is partially why I wrote a book like Dark of the West. It’s fantasy, it’s not real, and yet it feels like it could be our world. I think the old adage is still very true, that those who don’t learn from the past are condemned to repeat it, and I hope that I can take some of those lessons and warnings, and weave them into a fantastical place that will feel fresh and new and intriguing to readers.

I also want to add that I think there are nowhere near enough historical stories told from beyond the European/white experience. Familiar historical events are oft-told in our media culture, and yet there are so many other corners of history to explore. We have an entire world of stories waiting to be shared, far beyond the realm of Europe, and it’s why I get so excited knowing that writers like you, June, are bringing those stories to readers. I think more Own Voices Historicals will spark such great and necessary conversations, and really be a powerful force. We can’t learn from the past if we’re only hearing one side over and over again. I love that you switched from a British Historical to a Korean Historical, and I’m wildly eager to read it!


* I got the goosebumps reading about the historical and fantastical aspects of your novel! And I appreciate your enthusiasm for non-Western history. This is such an encouragement, not only for me, but for all writers out there who are writing their own non-Western fiction!

One thing I’ve been wondering since I first heard of your book is, how long did it take you to write Dark of the West? What was the experience like?

The “seed” of Dark of the West began sprouting when I was about 19, so quite a while ago! It looked very different back then, and I set it on the backburner for a long time. I never imagined being published, and, truth be told, it wasn’t even a goal of mine. I wrote simply for myself—for my own pleasure. I think I’d have been mortified at the thought of anyone reading my work back then! But about four years ago, as I finished the first real draft of DotW, I began to wonder if maybe, just maybe, others would enjoy this story too… I shared a few chapters on an online writing community (Scribophile) to receive feedback, and wonder of wonders! Strangers—real people—read and enjoyed what I posted! They also had a ton of feedback for me—essentially, everything about craft I’d never considered before that point, writing as I was for my own pleasure, and spoiler alert, I wasn’t a very good critic for myself. But instead of being intimidated by the intense critique, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. I knew that other people genuinely wanted to read this story, and that helped me endure the slog of endless revisions and blunt criticisms that inevitably come along with writing a halfway decent book.

Many of those original CPs are still at my side, as we exchange work and push each other to be better with every draft. (Shout out to Radhika Sainath who just offered me incredible Book 2 feedback, and who has her own book that I truly hope the world will get to read soon!)

A year later, I entered the writing contest Pitch Wars and was picked by my wonderful and wise mentor, Katie Bucklein. Through that experience I got my brilliant agent, Steven Salpeter, and the rest is (I suppose) history!


* I’m so glad you took that first step of courage, sharing your work with the online audience. How much has DotW changed since draft one of the story?

It’s changed a ton! The story is built around the premise of two feuding families marching towards inevitable war, with the star-crossed lovers in the middle of it, and between the two mc POVS you get to see the same conflict from opposite sides—and wonder who is right and who is wrong. But originally, it was only one POV—that of my princess, Aurelia. After the first draft of her story, I decided to experiment and write a chapter from the POV of my fighter pilot, Athan, and discovered he had an entire story (and family!) demanding to be shared as well. His world came to me quickly, in a flurry of typing sessions, and soon I had a book for her and a book for him, on a parallel timeline. I originally imagined they would be two separate books—hers first, and then his. But then I realized: a-ha! If I weave these two stories together, perhaps they’ll work in tandem… So, that’s what I did. The two sides had to be condensed and merged, which was its own wild chore since I always have too many words pouring out of my pages, but they illuminated one another wonderfully. It felt meant to be. Those were the largest changes, but I also bounced around between first person and third person, past and present, multiple prologues and beginnings and endings and middles. I like to say that I “grew up” as a writer with this one book. Instead of trying multiple stories, testing my wings, I stuck with this one story and kept working through the sweat and tears until something a bit readable (and apparently publishable) finally appeared.


* I absolutely adore dual-POVs! They add so many layers of complexity to a story. How are we going to wait till May 2018 to read DotW? For now, maybe you could share one of your favorite quotes from your book?

You know, this is a question I’ve never considered before. I’m going to share a line from Athan’s mother in the earlier part of the book. For background, Athan’s father is a violent and ambitious general who has led a revolt and seized control of a new nation, and Athan has two older brothers, one in the army and one in the navy (while Athan is in the air force). They’re a bit of a tragic trio, the three brothers. When I was writing this scene, I heard Athan’s mother speak these words, out of nowhere, and they were absolutely perfect for her character, for her futile desire to keep her children safe, even from her own husband.  Here’s the little passage:

“I know you’re confused,” she says softly, but firmly. She’s been made tiny from years in his shadow, light worn away, but somehow she’s still outside of it. A distant star. “A mother knows the depth of her saddest child. She feels the pain of her most broken one. You were mine, but I gave you up long ago. Please don’t leave your brothers alone in this. Don’t choose me. I fear for what he will ask of them.” She peers up into my face, her grief holding the weight of an entire family.

I look at her helplessly. “But I’m not like them.”

“No, you’re not. They are earth and sea. They can only go so far until they run up against one another.” She touches my cheek. “But you are the sky, my love. You are limitless.”


* Honestly, that was such a gorgeous, heart-wrenching passage. I’ll probably need a box of tissues while reading your book…! While working on this project, what scenes were hardest to write?

I find the hardest scenes to write are the “connecting” scenes. I’ll have a really exciting scene over here, and then another exciting scene over there, but something has to come in between and bring them together… and that is often my writing hell. I have to sit with that scene for a long time and find the one true thing in it. The heartbeat. The thing that jazzes me and makes it come alive. These are often the scenes that get tossed or rearranged once the draft is complete and I’m into edits/revisions. If they’re not pulling their weight, I recycle them into something better until they’re finally what they need to be.


* Writing definitely isn’t easy and it can be scary, especially for those working on their very first novel. If you could give one piece of advice to unpublished writers what would it be?

I think it would be to seek out feedback and don’t be afraid if it hurts. Don’t be afraid of work. Do whatever you must to make your gem shine and gleam, even if it means killing some darlings along the way. But right alongside this advice, of equal importance, is to also make sure that this feedback is coming from someone who gets the heart of your story. If the feedback isn’t pushing you closer to that heart—the theme, the essence, the reason you wrote your book—then quietly disregard it and find another CP who truly understands your vision. Critique can pull your book apart at the seams, for better or for worse. You need to treasure your own voice and learn to distinguish between the things that will make it stronger and perhaps more marketable—and the things that will erode away at the unique flavour you have to offer the world.


* Great points! I hope this will encourage more writers to share their work, and at the same time, to fiercely guard the heart of their novel. Also, what advice would you give to writers tackling writer’s block, imposter syndrome and self doubt?

The best cure for writer’s block (I find) is to read!!! Pick up a book by an author you love and let the words fill you. Also, it’s important to take breaks. Never underestimate the power of stepping away and enjoying life for a week or two. I guarantee there will come a moment when things suddenly clear and you’re ready to sit down at the computer again, words on fire.

And imposter syndrome is a real thing! I honestly don’t have an answer to that. I’m a bumbling debut with not much to show, so I definitely feel that most days. But I think it’s best to not focus on those things. I focus on my writing, my life beyond my books, and if I’m lucky then maybe I’ll get to keep doing this a while longer yet.


* I really hope to see more of your books out in the world! One last writing-related question: How do you personally relate to the main character in your book?

Ha, interesting question! I have two MCs, and I think I relate to them in different ways. I share a love of horses with Aurelia, the princess, but she’s definitely more bold and fearless than me. She was based, in part, on my younger sister who is a talented artist and equestrian, fiercely independent, and also adorably stubborn at times. Aurelia isn’t afraid of conflict. The pilot Athan, on the other hand, is much more non-confrontational and will do whatever he can to keep the peace, even if that means avoiding reality. I suppose I can relate to that more. But mostly, I relate to their humanity. They have weaknesses and flaws, struggling with their own cognitive dissonance, as we all do, but they truly want to do the right thing—even as the unjust world around them grows darker and more deceptive with the fog of war.


* Your characters—and you, yourself!—sound absolutely fascinating. Before we end the interview, what is one interesting/quirky fact about yourself?

I have a very fluffy cat and I call him all sorts of weird things, not limited to: Puffkins, Puffster, Fluffles McGee, Babyboo, Kittykins, Squeakers, and so on. I don’t know what half of them mean. Sometimes I just look at him rolling around on his belly and get inspired!

May I conclude this by saying how absolutely honoured I am that you invited me to do this, June! I so appreciate your enthusiasm for Dark of the West, and your thoughtful questions, and I’m really excited to see all the good things 2018 holds for you. ☺


* Thank you so much Joanna for your enthusiasm and support for writers like myself, and for joining me here on this blog! Getting to know more about your book and yourself was an absolute pleasure!


HathawayBorn in Montréal, Canada, Joanna Hathaway is an avid storyteller who was inspired to write after reading her great-grandfather’s memoirs of the First World War. A lifelong history buff, she now has shelves filled with biographies and historical accounts, and perhaps one too many books about pilots. She can often be found reading, traveling, or riding horses. Follow her on Twitter @hathawayjojo and on Instagram @spitfirewriter



How I got my agent!

Signing the contract!


8 years and two failed rounds of querying later, something wonderful happened.

On September 20, Amy Elizabeth Bishop of Dystel, Goderich & Bourret LLC emailed me and shared how much she loved my novel. We scheduled a call for the next day. On September 21, she offered me representation over the phone. And on September 28, after contacting other agents, I accepted Amy’s offer and can now say that I am represented by the amaaaaazing Amy Bishop.


Pinch me. Pinch me hard. This feels like a dream.

For eight years I’ve dreamt of this day. In 2009 I sent out my first batch of query letters for the book I’d worked on since I was 18. Bright eyed and hopeful, I queried to agents. One agent requested a Revise & Resubmit, and I had a feeling – I could feel it deep in my bones – that this would result in a representation. I poured all of myself into this project.

I went through two rounds of revisions with her, a back and forth that stretched on for months.

In the end, the agent snail mailed the hard copy to me, with red circles around a few typos, and told me to consider getting an editor. By this point, I was too emotionally drained to try again, so I decided to focus on my first year of university.

In 2014, I sent out another batch of queries for the rewritten-from-scratch version of my first book, and two agents asked for a Revise & Resubmit. Again, I was so hopeful – and felt this hope even deeper in my bones – that one of the agents would offer representation. An affirmation that my writing was worth advocating for.

After months of work, I sent out the revision to the two agents. I waited and waited. Weeks passed by. My emotions went through the most intense roller-coaster ever, making me lose sleep and even my appetite. Then their answers came: not for me.

I was crushed.

For the first time I began wondering if I’d made a big mistake by choosing to pursue my dream. I had poured more than 10,000 hours of my life into this one hope: that I’d land an agent, a step closer to publication. Now all the hours invested seemed like a waste.

Everyone knew me as the writer who would SQUEEL at any chance to write, but that excitement vanished. Writing now carried with it the weight of rejection and a feeling of defeat. So I stopped writing for a few months.

After a while, the writerly restlessness grew too strong. I needed to write again. Yet when I did try to return to writing, I encountered a problem. I no longer wanted to write about England. I still enjoyed BBC period dramas and Victorian novels, but England in my writing-world had become a land clouded with feelings of discouragement. So I had no country for my imagination to thrive in.

I’m so grateful that I went through this, though.

The reluctance to write another historical set in England made my eyes wander. I studied a bit about the British colonial period in India, I played around with the American Revolution, I looked into the lives of loyalists in Canada. Then my eyes strayed further and further to my homeland.


I knew little about the history, and suddenly, I felt this intense longing to read a Korean historical fiction. I searched the web and was disappointed by the limited reading selection.

I figured this was because Korean history wasn’t as interesting?

I picked up a book and read more about Korea’s past, not expecting much. What followed was absolutely exhilarating. Reading about Korean history, I fan-girled so hard, I highlighted every page, and several times, I had to cover my mouth from swearing because I HAD NO IDEA KOREAN HISTORY COULD BE SO KICK-ASS. I felt an urgency to tell a story  about this place, something I hadn’t felt in a long time.

This urgency led to the birth of Ten Thousand Rivers. I wrote it in a state of half-terror, as I’d never written about Asia before, so had no idea if I was writing this novel ‘correctly’. It was also really tough to find material to help with historical accuracy, so much of my time was spent searching the web and the libraries, getting headaches from entire days spent translating Korean sources. But mostly, I felt so liberated. I was writing because it was fun, letting my characters take me wherever they wished, encouraging them to go to new places so I’d have an excuse to research. I was part author, part explorer.

I revised and revised until I could no longer avoid it. It was time to query.

I no longer had any grand dreams of landing an agent, I had long ago stopped daydreaming about writing a ‘How I Got My Agent’ post. I prepared a query letter because it was almost like muscle-memory, a process in my writing journey I just had to endure through.

On May 2017, during my work break at the library, I sent out my first batch of queries.

One agent, then two, then ten, then more, asked me to send them the full manuscript. But for one reason or another, I received a rejection on those fulls (some very encouraging ones at that). Unlike the previous querying experience, I wasn’t too affected by this all. I slept well and ate well. I’d gone through this twice already, so rejections and R&Rs were nothing new.

In fact, I had expected this to happen.

I had  pursued this dream for so long that I expected it to stay just that: a faraway dream.

Then on Monday, I received an email. The subject line read, QUERY: Ten Thousand Rivers. It was from Amy Elizabeth Bishop of Dystel, Goderich & Bourret LLC. She had finished reading the requested full over the weekend and had really loved it. She wrote that she needed to do a little consulting on her end before getting back to me with a definite answer.

Even then, I told myself not to hope. Everyone around me was like, ‘This is great news!!!!!’ But I was just waiting for something not to work out. My inner doubt told me: ‘She’s an agent from Dystel…DYSTEL! She’s an advocate for diverse fiction AND she appreciates historical fiction! She’s way too good to be true.’

I had learned over the years to lower my expectations, so I told myself to anticipate nothing.

Not even a week later, I received another email from Amy with the subject line: “TEN THOUSAND RIVERS.” I found this odd. For nearly a decade, all my email exchanges with agents had come in the form of, Query: or Requested Material:

Very odd, indeed.

I was at work. I opened the email. I knew it would be a rejection and so prepared myself for it. But as I read on, I couldn’t find what I was looking for. I couldn’t find the usual “I enjoyed the novel, BUT…” Instead, Amy wanted to chat with me over the phone.

She wanted to talk about representation.




I was at work in the middle of binding books with elastics. I ended up throwing the elastics into the air, because I wanted to scream so hard but couldn’t and wanted to explode. My heart was racing. My hands and face sweating. I couldn’t believe what I had just read.

I ran into the staff lounge and called my fiancé, Bosco. I kept telling him this wasn’t real. That I’d misread. So he read the email over, slowly. He assured me that if he was the real Bosco on the phone, and not a dream, then the email was real too. I was sitting on the couch at this point, rocking back and forth, saying in a hundred different ways, ‘This can’t be true.’

For the remainder of the day, Amy and I exchanged brief emails, and finally scheduled THE CALL for the next day at 11:30am.

I hardly slept that night, and the next morning, I prepared the questions I wanted to ask her. I still had one more hour left until The Call. So I just sat in front of my phone, paced around the house, then sat in front of it again. I counted down each minute.

By 11:01, I kid you not, I was sweating and my heart was beating frantically. I was minutes away from the moment I had dreamt of for YEARS. The moment I thought would never, ever come.

11:30 arrived.

On the dot, my phone rang. An unknown number from NEW YORK.


I was nervous, and Amy knew, but she was super nice and understanding. I kept thinking: oh my gosh, I’m talking to an agent, an AGENT!!! With every passing minute, I became more convinced that Amy was a competent, creative and dedicated agent whose vision of my book not only agreed with my own—but crystallized it.

Our conversation ended with her telling me, “I love your story.”


So this is the story of how I landed an agent.

When I look back at the 8 years it took to get here, readers, I would not change a single day of it. The 100+ rejections taught me that hope is a fierce thing that carries you on its shoulder, no matter how steep the climb. And my experience with Revise & Resubmit requests truly humbled me. This experience taught me that I should never be so arrogant as to think that there’s no more room for writing improvement, or to put myself down so low as to believe improvement is impossible.

The journey ahead is still long, but I am so incredibly grateful that I now have Amy to advocate for my writing.

Of course, I definitely wouldn’t have made it here without support. I’m indebted to Shaylin and Evan for their invaluable critiques on TTR, and Windy for her support and always encouraging our group to write, write, write! To the WRUT crew for being real life writer friends and supporters! To Matthew, Kim S., Brenna, Clariza, Mina, Tatiana, Mado, for being early readers. To Julie Dao for helping me with my query letter and for being one of my greatest inspirations to never give up.

I’d like to thank all the Night Flower CPs that helped me become a stronger writer, especially to Rowenna (Congrats on your book deal!!!), Cassie, Becca, Flore, Grace V. To Yana for her contagious enthusiasm. To the readers of the version back when it was called TRC: Val-Rae, Kim S., Shaylin, Rika, Sarah Dill, Brenna. I hope I didn’t miss anyone, but it’s possible that I did (forgive me!), because so many people helped me with this project.

And, of course, a humongous thanks to my family. To my sister, for always being my greatest ally, and my brother, for his support. To my parents, who encouraged me to pursue writing, never pressuring me to do anything other than what I love. To my small group ladies who always embraced me on my darkest days, never tired of my writing woes, no matter how many times I cried over it. To Cristina for her pearls of wisdom. And to Bosco, my unshakeable source of encouragement throughout this whole process, thank you for the Agent Excel Spreadsheet and my mock book cover.

And a big thank you to my agent, the amazing Amy Elizabeth Bishop, for seeing potential in my work and pulling me out of the Query Trenches!

Querying Stats:

RUNAWAY COURTESAN (November 2009 – August 2010):
Queries sent: 30
Partials requested: 0
Full requested: 2
Offers of representation: 0

NIGHT FLOWER (October 2014 – October 2015):
Queries sent: 60
Partials requested: 0
Fulls requested: 2
Offers of representation: 0

TEN THOUSAND RIVERS (April – September 2017)
Queries sent: 85
Partials requested: 2
Fulls requested: 14
Offers of representation: 1*

*Fact: Even though I knew I wanted to work with Amy, out of etiquette, I contacted the other agents to let them know that I’d received an offer. Agents bowed out. A day after accepting Amy’s offer, I checked my Spam folder and saw that another agent had emailed me two days ago. Her whole office had read my manuscript, and she called Ten Thousand Rivers a ‘force to be reckoned with.’ She asked what time I was available… To chat? To offer representation? Or maybe not? I have no idea, and it’ll remain a mystery forever.



An Excerpt From My WIP!

7f0fd5177658b000d1ae168b63c1503aI’ve finished the crap draft rough draft of my historical fiction set in feudal Korea (the Joseon Dynasty, 1800). I haven’t felt so enchanted and so lost in a world for quite some time, as I’ve spent years working on Night Flower, which has come to feel more like an essay I really enjoy revising.

Also, because it’s been a while since I fell ‘head over heels’ in love with a story since Night Flower, at first I was worried this story wouldn’t work out like the two other novels I attempted to write (the first one I finished drafting but didn’t like. The second one I couldn’t get past the outlining stage). But with this WIP, my gut is telling me that I’ve found The Story. The positive signs:

  1. I finished the draft and still feel good about it.
  2. I am in love with the history. And this is so crucial for me. Research is what inspires much of my plot and character development.
  3. I wake up in the middle of the night with new plot ideas.
  4. I have an ending for this story that I like.
  5. I have a thesis theme for this story that I want to further explore.
  6. I can’t stop talking about this story.

Now that I have the bare, bare bones of the story set in place, it’s time to return to the first chapter and actually make this story readable. The challenges I’ve faced so far while writing this (and will continue to face) is the lack of resources. I mean, there’s tons of great books on Joseon Korea at my university libraries. But it’s not much compared to the massive resource available if I were to write another novel set in England. Also, certain materials I need for my novel (i.e. primary sources) have yet to be translated into English, so a good deal of my time is spent translating the Korean into English. It’s laborious, but it’s paying off.

I’m just having so much fun with this story.

Anyway, I wanted to share an excerpt from chapter one. But before I do, here’s a brief summary of the story (which, if you follow me on facebook, you’ve already read):

Seol, a seventeen-year-old slave girl in 19th century Korea, must assist Inspector Han when a Catholic woman is found dead with a strange symbol carved into her face. Together, they traverse from mud-covered alleys to exquisite mansions in search of a brutal killer.


Chapter One

The dirt road outside the Eastern Palace usually clamored with life: women crowding the fish stalls, farmers carrying their produce, scholars with their silk robes, monks and traveling merchants. And there would always be a mob of children, faces burnt and glistening in the sticky heat, chasing after their rivals. But for the past few days the capital lay still under the heavy pall of silence, the entire kingdom mourning the king’s death.

“Feels like a ghost village…” My voice resounded, then silence returned, intensified by the rain pitter-pattering against black tiled roofs. I lowered the satgat over my face, a straw hat pointed at the top and wide at the brims, allowing the rain to dribble off. “What a strange and eerie day.”

“And the days will become stranger yet,” Officer Sunwou said. “They say that when King Chŏngjo died, an astonishing phenomena occurred.”

“What happened?”

“The rays of sunlight collided and burst into sparks, like fireworks. Then there came a terrible noise of weeping from Mount Samgak. It was a bad omen.” He eyed our grey surrounding as he adjusted his sash belt, worn around his black robe. “The old order has passed, and the new will come with a river of blood. From what I hear,” his voice lowered into a whisper, “the king was assassinated.”

I quickened my step to walk alongside him. “Assassinated?”

“By fatal poisoning.”

“Not from an illness?”

“Perhaps from an illness. But others say Sim Hwanji poisoned the king.”

“Who’s that?”

A sharp laugh escaped him. “You don’t know? How can you not!” He peered down at me, arching a thick and youthful brow. “Everyone knows. He’s the prime minister, the leader of the Old Doctrine’s Principle Faction.”

Old Doctrine, Principle. There were four major factional groupings, usually referred to as the four colors, but after the murder of the Crown Prince Sado in 1762, the established party lines had further split into sub-factions. Biting my lower lip, I frowned then offered a guess. “They’re the King’s rival faction, aren’t they?”

He snorted but remained silent, so I assumed that I was right. “Why would they poison the king. If the rumor is true, that is. What does the prime minister want?”

“Such a child you are. What’s the one thing everyone in the palace wants? To stabilize their shaky power.” He clucked his tongue and waved me away. “What use is it for a slave to know such things? And I’ve told you many times, a woman shouldn’t talk so much.”

Obediently, I retreated and followed in his shadow. He was right, of course. Among the seven sins a woman could commit, one was talking excessively. A man could even divorce his wife because of her chattiness.

I blamed my brother for this sin of mine, this longing to understand the world, to collect as much information as I could from the learned. For here in the capital, the scholars were not generous like Older Brother; no, they were self-willed, their knowledge like stubborn fishes, which when you seek to catch, will strike back at you.

“You there.”

I looked ahead. Investigator Han stood in the near distance, watching me from beneath the wide brim of his hat, the string of beads that strapped his chin trembling in the gust of rain. Behind him were two officers, the coroner’s assistant, and the clerks. The police artist was busily sketching something. As I hurried towards the Inspector, two officers spoke somewhere behind me:

“Found by a watchman.”


“He was patrolling the West Gate, and at the end of his watch, there she was.”

I gathered my hands before me and bowed to Inspector Han, deeper than was necessary. He was to me the great spotted leopard from my village: the speedy and well-muscled hunter who excelled at climbing and jumping, and in slipping silently through the grass with scarcely a ripple.

“You called for me, nauri,” I said, addressing him by his honorific.

“Have a look at her.”

He was gesturing at a lump a few paces away. I walked towards the shadow of the weather-beaten fortress wall that enclosed Hanyang, the capital of Joseon, then clenched my teeth as my stomach turned to water. It was a woman. She lay sprawled, her face on the ground. A noblewoman by her dress and jacket, made of a closely-woven ramie cloth, beautifully patterned.

“Flip her around,” the Inspector ordered. “We have yet to see her wound.”

I stepped over the corpse, crouched, and grabbed her shoulder. This was why the Capital Police Bureau kept female slaves like me: I was an extension of police-officers, my hands used by them to arrest female criminals and to examine female victims. An inconvenience, but gentlemen were forbidden from touching women who were not directly related to them. It was the law, Confucius’ law.

[To be continued…]