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20 Questions with Vanessa Montalban

One of the many perks of working at an independent bookstore is that I have the opportunity to talk to some amazing authors when they do events at our store. One of those very talented authors is one of the nicest people I think I've ever met– Vanessa Montalban. When we first met she came in to sign some books and when I told her I was aspiring to publish, she gave me her card and offered to help with anything I might need. She is a debut author with her new YA- witchy book A Tall Dark Trouble. It's a beautiful cross-section of magic, sisterhood, heritage, and spookiness. Seriously though, it's so good!

So, with Vanessa being such a talented debut author and sweet person, I asked her if she wouldn't mind answering 20 from someone who's trying to break into the publishing industry. I got together with my best writing friend Maddy and came up with questions we're dying to know the answers to, and I hope these will be insightful for anyone else trying to get their writing off the ground.

I want to thank Vanessa Montalban again for her generosity in sharing her experience and being consistently kind. I cannot wait to follow her career!

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1. How long did it take from conception to publication?

V: My debut book was actually the book that’s taken the longest for me to write. I was playing around with the idea of witch sisters in the vein of Practical Magic since 2016. It wasn’t until that Thanksgiving, when it was announced that Fidel Castro had died, where the fully formed idea really hit me. I’d also decided during that time to return to school for what I really wanted, a degree in creative writing. That’s another reason it took me so long to write A Tall Dark Trouble. I had to pause multiple times to work on school assignments and on revisions for my other projects. Workshopping scenes and chapters in school was incredibly helpful, especially my screenwriting class. I was getting critiqued as I wrote which helped me hone in on my craft and on the story I wanted to tell. I wasn’t a big outliner before (I’ve since learned that it’ll save me time in the long run). I went into writing A Tall Dark Trouble with a strong idea of my characters and some major plot points I wanted to reach, but I had no idea how to end this story. In 2020, I was picked for a mentorship program called Las Musas, a mentorship for Latinx creators. My mentor, Nina Moreno, gave me my first taste of what an edit letter would look like from someone already experienced in the publishing industry. She helped me whip my manuscript into shape and end it in a way that felt full circle and strong. In 2021, I completed my story and joined a Twitter pitch contest for writers looking for a literary agent. My pitch had some great responses, and soon after I got an agent! After another round of extensive revisions, Danielle Burby and I went on submission for about five months before the offers came in! I accepted a preempt from Zando in September 2021. So all in all, it took five years from idea to publication.


2. Did you get your degree in writing, or did you pursue any programs for writing?

V: I did! I finally graduated with a bachelor’s in creative writing from the University of Central Florida in 2020. I plan to double major in anthropology and go back for my Masters, eventually. It’s totally not necessary to get a degree in writing in order to write. I’ve met plenty of authors who went to school for completely different things, or didn’t finish school at all. Personally, I think what helped me the most were the creative writing courses where I was exchanging my work with others in the class. Reading other stories with a critical eye is so helpful in developing your ability to read your own work critically.


3. What was your initial editing process? Did you have any beta readers, or help editing before the publication process?

V: The revisions on my manuscript were Extensive with a capital E. I have a few trusted beta readers that read my work as I’m drafting. I waded through a lot of nonhelpful comments from beta readers before finding the ones I cherish for all their firm but considerate comments. Taking into account their suggestions, and rereading my own work more objectively, I was able to go back into the manuscript and self-edit before I even submitted to Las Musas mentorship program. I consulted editing books like Save the Cat and Lisa Cron’s Story Genius. With my mentor, Nina Moreno, I went through a few rounds of revisions, and with her help, I completed the rest of my novel. With my editor, I went through even more rounds of revisions, cutting out characters, adding some new ones in, changing around chapters, etc. It was my bright idea to have multiple point-of-views and dual timelines for my debut book!


4. How did you start publishing your work? Did you submit short stories, or go straight to writing novels?

V: My first published work was when I was ten. I wrote this poem about going off to war, though I didn’t have any first-hand or even second-hand experience of what that was like. Anyway, I wrote this poem and submitted it to an anthology. I was ecstatic when they picked it up to publish. It wasn’t until my twenties that I found out my mom had paid for them to publish it! *cries-laugh* But the gesture was so sweet, and it always gave me this little ego boost that my words were worthy of publication. Finding out the truth didn’t change that. I went on to publish a few more short stories and poems with online zines and through my college and University papers. I think I completed my first novel in 2014 or 2015, and I’d been trying to get my novels published ever since.


5. How do you go about marketing your book personally and what are your thoughts on social media presence?

V: Since this is my first book and I’m still learning as I go along, I’ve really been trying anything I can and hoping something sticks. Probably not the most organized plan of action. A lot of it depends on what your publisher is willing to help with. I’ve been fortunate that my publisher has covered most of my book swag for preorder incentives. Things like bookmarks, stickers, gorgeous art inlays. Promoting these things along with my book help entice readers to preorder. My publisher also sent PR book boxes to social media influencers which helps get the word out. I did some of this outreach myself too. I’ve sent free books, swag, and advanced reader copies to book promoters, librarians, and booksellers. But I understand that’s not feasible for everyone. I’ve gotten very creative with apps like Canva, learning to do graphics to further promote my book in places like Instagram, Tiktok, etc. I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone to film funny TikToks, travel to different bookstores and public speak, go to conferences. The marketing can feel like a full-time job at times, and I’m still in the process of finding the right balance. I think there’s only so much the author themselves can do move the marketing needle, unless by a stroke of luck, your video goes viral or something happens to skyrocket your book that’s outside of your control. For social media, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t necessary at all. For most of us trying to market our books, a social media presence can come in handy, but there’s no need to spread yourself thin. You can pick one platform you’re comfortable with and start there. Or if social media drains you entirely, then don’t bother. You should always live in a way that makes you happy, that doesn’t bring you distress. Stepping outside of your comfort zone is one thing, if that’s something you want to develop about yourself, but if it’s not, find your boundaries. Social media doesn’t have to be for every writer.


6. Was this the first book you queried or were there others?

V: I queried two other books before this one, and I queried way too widely. Meaning, I should’ve done more research on who I was submitting to. Querying can be painful. I think I’d gotten to the point where I was querying out of desperation and a bit of abandon. My first book got picked up by a small indie publisher, but when my editor left, I asked for my rights back. For my second novel, I got an agent after ignoring some red flags. Again, the desperation had me willing to overlook things. We parted ways, and I knew for my third novel, what eventually became my debut book, I needed to be a lot more discerning about who I chose to champion my story.


7. What research did you do when writing your query letter and what did you include in it?

V: There used to a website called agentqueryconnect where you could receive and give out feedback on query letters. There were some very talented people on that site, and I gathered quite a bit of knowledge on what a query letter should look like. I’d also been looking at query letter samples from some of my favorite authors, if they had it available on their website. As well as looking into how-to websites like Query Shark. I knew I needed a strong hook, a brief summary that came off voicey, and a conclusion that stated the stakes. Queries are tricky, because you not only have to describe the plot, but also what your character is going through internally. Funny thing is I usually write a query letter before I even start drafting my novel. It also serves as a way to see if your idea is marketable or fully fleshed out. For A Tall Dark Trouble, writing the query was especially complicated because it has multiple points of views and two timelines (2016 Miami and 1980 Cuba). I had to briefly summarize both timelines and make a connection between the two. Comparing your novel to other recent releases or movies also helps form a visual of what your story is trying to accomplish. I believe I compared mine to Practical Magic meets Serpent & Dove.


8. How did you know you were ready to find an agent and did you have a strategy for getting them?

V: Yeah, so with A Tall Dark Trouble, I’d gotten a lot more feedback through peers at school, through my beta readers, and through the mentorship program. I felt it was as polished as it could be, and I was really proud of it. I’d spent so long in that world by myself. I knew it was time to query. My plan, originally, had been to query my top 5 agents first then proceed based off their responses. But at the time I was getting ready to query, there were two popular Twitter pitch contests going on (back when Twitter was still a thing): DVpit and Latinxpitch. I pitched my novel in 140 characters and got a really great response rate. I’d gotten close to 60 agents who wanted to see my query and sample chapters. I researched each agent (some I already recognized from previous querying) and I researched the agencies they represented. I even bought a publisher’s marketplace membership to check on how many sales they’ve had in my genre. I wanted to make sure they had built relationships with editors already. I started with a batch of 15 agents and got multiple offers. Nothing at all like what I’d experienced with my prior two manuscripts.


9. What was the process of editing like once you got an agent, and then submitting it out to publishers?

V: The edits with my agent were thorough. We went through at least four rounds of major developmental revisions. Since I did write two timelines, I needed to make sure they worked together more organically, so we worked on shifting entire chapters and reworking the story’s main structure to better piece together. Then we went through clean-up line-edits where we checked for grammar and sentence structure. When looking for an agent, editing was one of the main things I wanted to be on the same page about. I wanted an editorial agent who’d focus on presenting the best version of my manuscript out to editors, and I wanted to make sure we agreed on proposed changes.


10. How did you know which publisher was the right one to go with and how many did your agent submit to before the book was picked up?

V: I think we went out to around 20 to 30 editors in the span of five months. We had a few editors take the manuscript to acquisitions (at certain publishers it’s the final step after getting approved by the editorial team and marketing). After a few rejections, we went back to the drawing board and did yet another round of revisions. After resubmitting to one of the editors who hadn’t got back to us, and a new batch of editors, the offers starting coming in. We were about to go to auction when a preempt from Zando came in. I had already met with the editors that were making offers and each of them were spectacular. They all blew me away with their passion and knowledge. It was a really tough decision and I’m lucky I had the guidance of my agent. I had to take a few things into consideration: the money, the planned release date, and the overall connection with the editor’s vision.


11. What was the business side of getting an agent and publisher like? Did you hire a lawyer to help?

V: Nope, no lawyer. When it came to signing the contract with my literary agent, I had my family look it over. But I think that’s why it’s so important to research your agent before querying. Make sure they have a clean track record with other clients. For the publishing contract, that’s where my agent’s experience and expertise comes into play. She made sure everything in the contract served my best interest.


12. What’s the hardest part and most fun part of becoming a published author?

V: The hardest part about being an author is the marketing side, though that can be fun too. The tough part is knowing where it’s best to spend your energy to move the needle toward sales. It’s thinking about writing as not just your passion, but as a business as well. The best and most fun part is to connect with readers and meet other authors. Finding likeminded people who love to read has always been the best part of being in this community.


13. What is the most surprising thing you learned from the publishing process?

V: I was surprised by how many hats you need to wear once you publish. It really is like owning a small business. Writing is just the start of your responsibilities. There’s editing, marketing, and then taxes!


14. What’s on the horizon, how do you work with your agent on the next steps?

V: I’m still discovering how this is supposed to work but since we sold a two-book deal, my focus right now is working on revisions for book 2 with my editor. I also have ideas brewing for the next book, and I believe, I can go out on submission with a proposal. Going on submission means shopping your novel to publishers. And going on proposal means your presenting your project with only a portion of the novel written or even with just an outline.


15. Do you have a writing community and how did you find it?

V: I do! I’ve been involved in the writing community for many years already through querying help websites, critique websites, Goodreads, and Twitter. I started off by finding critique partners through those sites and exchanging chapters. I also found some great friends through the mentorship program I joined, Las Musas. Discords, Slack groups, and private DMs were formed until I found the community I clicked with the most.


16. How are you balancing your writing career and other life endeavors like family, or another job possibly?

V: It’s been tough, not going to lie. Not everything fits neatly into block scheduling, especially family time. I’m lucky that my day job isn’t as taxing. I’ve been a self-employed insurance agent for 17 years. I have a steady income from both my work and my husband’s work. I have busy seasons and times where I can almost solely dedicate myself to writing. My family is so incredibly supportive of what I do and my kids are already a bit older. When they were younger, and required more of my attention, writing was done in the twilight hours when everyone had gone to bed. Now, I have more opportunities to schedule my writing into my workday while everyone’s at school.


17. What would you do differently?

V: It might be cliché to say, but I wouldn’t change a thing. Every experience, even the rough ones, have led me to where I am, and every mistake has been necessary for me to learn.


18. Who are the authors you learned from or look up to?

V: So many! When I was younger, I read anything and everything from authors like Lois Duncan, Christopher Pike, and Sarah Dessen. They taught me a lot about emotional writing and character development. In recent years, I continue to find inspiration from writers like Silvia Moreno Garcia, Sandra Cisneros, Tiffany Jackson, and Evie Dunmore.


19. Recommended must reads for writers?

V: Definitely check out Lisa Cron’s Story Genius for a guide on building character and plot around character. Story Genius is a craft book that focuses on a character’s third rail—the driving emotional force that pushes a character throughout your story. If you like thrillers and horror, I recommend Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno Garcia and The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas. Anything by Evie Dunmore for historical romance. Emily Henry for romance in general. Tiffany Jackson for young adult thriller stories.


20. What advice do you have for those behind you?

V: No matter how far you are in your publishing journey, the goal post will continue to move. Don’t forget the joy and passion that led you to this career. Remind yourself that writing is your comfort, your safe space and no rejection, no industry person can take that away from you.

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