In 2010, we moved to South Korea for my husband's work. At churches I heard about people helping North Korean escapees. I had never heard about them in the states. I researched on the Internet, reading all the articles I could find, watching You Tube videos about them. Most of the articles kept mentioning a Pastor Chun, calling him the "Schindler of Asia." So in 2012 I looked him up, found his church & school for North Korean children, and with my husband translating, I interviewed him & two North Korean boys who had recently escaped. Afterward I set out to write a picture book manuscript about this fascinating story. First draft was written November 29, 2012. It went through 16 miserable drafts with my faithful critique group Pens & Brushes, until a couple of them piped up and said I should try this as a middle grade novel.
A MG novel? I had never written one before. Another critique partner, Nancy I. Sanders, had a self-paced course "How to Write a Middle Grade Novel in One Month," which I took. I already had the basic plot line. I wrote the 21 chapters between March/April 2015. Revised 4 times with some beta-readers & used editor Cheryl Klein's book Second Sight. Then someone told me about the Scholastic Asian Book Award--submit a story about Asia, written by an Asian. That's me. I had nothing to lose. I was floored when someone contacted me that my MG novel had been shortlisted for this award, and would I fly to Singapore for the results? In May 2016, I took a day off from teaching, flew to Singapore for the Asian Festival of Children's Content conference, when I discovered the renowned picture book historian & author, Leonard Marcus, was one of the judges! My MG novel titled at that time, Chasing Freedom: The Asian Underground Railroad, won 2nd place, or what they called 1st Runner Up. Scholastic Asia wanted to publish. I blogged about that experience here.
After receiving the contract from Scholastic Asia, I didn't feel that it was right for me and my story. $500SG + few edits. I knew that since it was my first novel, it needed a lot of work. After talking to many professionals in the industry, I passed.
In December 2016, I signed with my wonderful agent, Adria Goetz, who loved a couple of my picture book manuscripts. I told her about this novel, and she agreed to help. From 2017-2018 I revised with Adria. She sent it out to editors, and they sent back rejections. I revised per their suggestions. She sent it out again. 11 rejections. Then Adria had a wild idea. Try writing it as a novel in verse. She had just sold one, and my previous picture book, RICE FROM HEAVEN: THE SECRET MISSION TO FEED NORTH KOREANS was written as a lyrical picture book. Adria knows my writing better than me. I loved reading novels in verse but had never written one.
So I read the great novel in verse authors' works that I could get my hands on, checked them out from the library when I was in the states during summer, even took an SCBWI Novel in Verse webinar with author K.A. Holt. During the latter part of 2018 - beginning of 2019 I worked on rewriting this as poetry.
Until March 2019, I sort of QUIT. I was depressed. Who was I to try to write a novel in verse? or a MG? I don't classify myself as a poet. Some parts of the story just weren't coming together. Being across the ocean from my agent, somehow Adria could sense something was wrong. She emailed me to have a phone chat in April. Just what I needed. Adria was such an encourager, a believer in me & my writing, and gave me a great pep talk & kick in the pants, so to speak.
With encouragement & prayers, I finished the 5th novel in verse revision that May, and we changed the title to The Tune without Words b/c there was already another book with my previous title. She sent it out to editors. In June editor Carolina from Harper Collins asked if we were interested in publishing it as a lyrical novel in verse GRAPHIC NOVEL.
A graphic novel?! Truthfully, I had only read 1 previous graphic novel of my niece's--one of Raina Telgemeier's books. I'm not really into say-- superhero graphic novels & comics. (no offense!) I did read comics growing up, The Sunday Funnies like Peanuts, Garfield, Dennis the Menace, Cathy, etc...
But graphic novels have changed! Blogging friends showcased graphic novels that were being published about historical topics and nonfiction. Articles are being written on the effects of students reading them in the classroom. While in Iowa during the summer, one that I really liked was HIDDEN: A CHILD'S STORY OF THE HOLOCAUST written by Loic Dauvillier & Greg Salsedo, illustrated by Marc Lizano. So I told Adria, yes, let's go for it.
The editor from Harper Collins found an illustrator, Deborah Lee, a Korean American illustrator in CA, who would illustrate a sample poem so we could get an idea. She sent illustration samples in August. I fell in love with the characters & color palette. It was so poignant & made me cry. I want children in the U.S. and around the world to know that as we speak--some kids in N.K. are escaping or living hidden in China. With Deb's illustrations, this story will really come to life and especially bring out the cultural aspects that people might not be familiar with.
I signed the contract in November, my biggest yet, & received first edits in December which I submitted & will continue to revise until it's perfecto! Carolina has been a wonderful editor for this story.
But even better--God has perfect timing. I've been wanting this story to be out in the world, but it wasn't the time yet. Most of you know I teach at an international school in S.Korea. I've wanted them to do a service ministry with North Korean refugees but it never worked out, until now! The same North Korean school run by Pastor Chun agreed to have some of our high school students come in March to do an English camp with their 40 North Korean children. I'm one of the teachers on the team. And now I can share with him that this story finally sold & will become reality in 2022! God is good. His timing is perfect.
Sorry to ramble on and on, but don't give up on your story. If you believe that it needs to be told, find the best format/genre/style, take classes, study the craft, and it will get out into the world ❤️
My Christmas wish came true two years ago when Adria Goetz of Martin Literary became my literary agent. I couldn't ask for a sweeter agent. Adria knows my writing probably better than I do! She's helped me grow as a writer, and one of our sales is her brainchild.
I would like to help someone else have their wish fulfilled as well. So I asked Adria if I could interview her, and of course, she said yes.
1. Tell us about yourself.
I’m a literary agent based about an hour south of Seattle, where I live in a Victorian-era farmhouse with my husband Alex and our two silver cats, Maple and Mulberry. Outside of publishing, my life is currently filled with house renovations, writing a middle grade novel, having dinner every other week with friends from our church, cooking and baking, swimming at my gym, and dreaming about the day when we’ll finally get to be foster parents.
2. How did you get into agenting?
Through an internship! When I was in college, I knew I wanted to work within the publishing industry in some capacity, so I applied for every internship I could find that was in any way, shape or form connected to publishing. I wanted to see the publishing beast from every angle, and the angle I liked the view of best was through the eyes of an agent. My agency internship was with Martin Literary—the agency I’m still with today. I stuck around as an intern for two years, then after graduating from the University of Washington, the agency hired me as a personal assistant. I attended the Columbia Publishing Course in New York, then returned to Seattle and made the leap of asking Martin Literary to take me on in an agent capacity. In some ways I feel like I grew up at this agency. I’ve been with Martin Literary since I was 19 years old!
3. What is your favorite part of being an agent?
Getting to feel like a Bookish Fairy godmother that makes people’s writing dreams come true.
4. What do you look for when acquiring a new client?
Kindness, savviness, talent, and a great work ethic.
5. What’s on your #mswl?
The top items are picture books by author/illustrators, a diverse YA Rom Com, a food-related graphic novel, and spooky picture books. I am also forever looking for magical stories, funny stories, and atmospheric stories.
6. What do you look for in a query letter?
An industry-standard word count, appropriate genre and age group (PB/MG/YA) classification, an intriguing blurb, spot-on comp titles, and something bio-related that will give me context for who the writer is as a person. I also like seeing that a writer is an SCBWI member, because that signals to me that they’re probably going to workshops, conferences, and plugged into a critique group, which means they’ll be a more polished and savvy client.
7. For those interested in the Christian market, what are editors asking for?
I’m hearing a lot of editors asking for books that foster genuine empathy, compassion, kindness, love, as well as books by diverse voices, and books that incorporate scripture in a unique way. I’m hearing editors say they don’t want books that are behavior-centered, overly didactic, or Bible story-based. Christian publishers definitely still publish Bible story-based books, but they’re often developed in-house.
8. How many clients do you currently represent? 34!
favorite color? Maroon
favorite food? Chicken pad thai.
favorite movies? The Princess Bride, Chocolat, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Big Fish,
The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, Pride & Prejudice, Practical Magic, Julie & Julia, The Breakfast Club, Chef, Stranger Than Fiction, Good Will Hunting, and Saving Mr. Banks.
favorite animal? Raccoons. I know that they have a terrifying disposition, but their little faces and paws are so cute.
favorite holiday? Halloween. I love all things spooky.
favorite books from your childhood?
My mom read every book in The Chronicles of Narnia series to me and my three sisters, which is such a sweet memory for me, so those books will always be dear to me.
When I could read on my own, I devoured A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. I also loved the Magic Treehouse books, American Girl Doll books, Holes by Louis Sachar, and The Ancient One by T.A. Barron.
What are you reading now?
I’m always reading like eight books at once. The current ones are FRONT DESK by Kelly Yang, GREENGLASS HOUSE by Kate Milford, THE DOLLHOUSE by Fiona Davis, HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES by Carmen Maria Machado, INSPIRED by Rachel Held Evans, INVISIBLE GHOSTS by Robyn Schneider, I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK by Michelle McNamara, and WITHERING-BY-SEA by Judith Rossell.
If writers would like to query you after reading this, what are your instructions?
For picture book queries, they can include a query letter and the text of their manuscript pasted in the body of your email. If they’re an author/illustrator, they can send their full dummy as an attachment. For middle grade or young adult submissions, they can email me their query with the first chapter of their manuscript attached to the email, and a synopsis if they have one available.
Queries can be sent to Adria@MartinLit.com.
You can check out Martin Literary here.
For another recent interview of Adria, click here.
Thanks so much, Adria, for taking the time to answer my questions! You've been an awesome agent to work and grow with these past two years and FOUR book contracts (the last one to be announced soon).
In honor of our 2nd agent-versary (I just coined a new term), I'd like to host a FREE picture book critique or a query letter critique by ME (Tina Cho) before you send to an agent. If you'd like to be in the drawing, please say so in the comments. Someone will be chosen on Christmas Day!
Rice from Heaven Nitty-Gritty
My first picture book was announced in Publisher's Weekly twice, July 18-19. One of the hardest things for an author to do is to keep matters a secret! But now it's official!
I wrote this story last year May 2016 after helping North Korean refugees send rice in balloons over the border of South Korea into the communist country. As the book comes closer to being published, I'm sure I'll share more details. Writing tip: Never give up. Revise and revise some more. If you don't know how, learn.
But for now, here's a timeline of Rice from Heaven for those of you who like writing details.
May 2nd, 2016: helped with balloon rice mission
May 9th, 2016: wrote 1st draft at 818 words
Dec. 19, 2016: snagged agent with this story (different draft)
Jan/Feb. 2016: 1st round of 20 editors, 7 responded mostly they liked the story behind it, needed to improve writing (rejections), 1 took to acquisitions
End of Feb/ March/: Revised to be more lyrical--for more details on that, see this post
April 18: sent out 2nd round of submissions, 18 editors, 6 rejected, 3 interested
April 18, 2017: Sonali Fry emailed, interested, took to acquisitions
April 21, 2017: Sonali Fry made an offer
May 1, 2017: phone call with Sonali and Adria
May 2017: draft #17 of 473 words sold verbally to Sonali Fry at Little Bee
May 18, 2017: Began back matter assistance with Little Bee
June 1, 2017: received 1st draft of contract
June 24th, 2017: signed picture book contract for Rice from Heaven in California with my agent and found out who the illustrator will be
July 10, 2017: received signed contract back from Little Bee
July 18, 2017: announced in Publisher's Weekly
How I Got My Agent + Update
She announced there was a new agent at her agency, a children's agent who would specialize in the Christian market. My eyes took notice, and I started researching her. My stories weren't specifically for the Christian market, but they could be tweaked to lean that way. I queried Adria with two stories I felt she might like. The next day she said to send them over. About three weeks later, she emailed that she had read my stories that same day I emailed them and hadn't been able to stop thinking about them. And she asked for THE CALL! I was thrilled. So that weekend (working out time zones) we talked, and I printed out those lists of questions to ask an agent, and she offered representation. I signed the contract on December 5th, after first querying her on October 30th. To God be the glory!
It's been wonderful having Adria by my side, my advocate, cheerleader, and one to submit for me. If it wasn't for her, I think I would have given up on one of my stories. We've gotten good feedback from editors and are pushing my story to be the best it can be. I've learned that real, true, revising is HARD.
Adria will also help negotiate my Scholastic Asia contract for my novel coming out next summer 2018! I heard from my editor and have received a list of things to revise.
Meanwhile, my husband & I just finished proofreading a Korean/English pocket dictionary for a publisher. Who knew there was such a job? And because of my blogging about guided reading books, a publisher from Australia discovered my site and just commissioned me to write 22 books for them. I guess I might not have another blog post until summer. :P
Thanks for bearing with me! What have you all been up to?
Tina M. Cho, children's author
I'm a children's author and freelance writer for the educational market. Welcome!