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Happy Wednesday Everyone! Today I'm excited to share my IWSG post and a guest post by debut author Celeste Lim and her agent Rosemary Stimola to celebrate the release of Celeste's debut MG historical fantasy THE CRYSTAL RIBBON. I am especially excited for this because it is set in China, where I adopted my daughter from.

Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!

Posting: The first Wednesday of the month is officially Insecure Writer's Support Group Day.
The co-hosts this month are Co-Hosts: Misha GerickeLK HillJuneta Key, and Joylene Buter.

Today's Question: How has being a writer changed your experience as a reader?

When I started writing, I took the advice to read in your genre to heart. For over 10 years, I only read MG and YA books, especially in fantasy, science fiction, and dystopian. In addition, when I started blogging here, I read all the books I featured here. After a point, it left me on too much of a reading schedule because I was reading about 100 books a year. It got to be too much, but I learned a lot from reading so much in my genre and grade level about the craft of writing and how to write for a specific age group.

In addition, my writing has made me be more critical as a reader. If a book really made writing errors or the plot dragged, I stopped forcing myself to plod through the book. There are just too many good books out there that I want to read.

When my husband died almost three years ago, I went through a reading crisis where I just couldn't read for quite awhile. I mention this in case any of you ever find yourself in this situation. Apparently, it's a fairly common problem. For awhile, I could only listen to audio books. Finally about a year ago, I broke through my reading print book crisis, but I've found that I really need to read adult books for now. I've gone through too many life changes, and I need to read about adults going through those kind of challenges too. Now I'm not as interested in audio books, but am really excited to read in general and expand the genres of books I read. Hopefully at some point, I can go back to reading some MG and YA books too.

What about you? How has writing changed your reading?

Now, onto my guest post with Celeste and Rosemary!

What do agents look for in a potential client?


So, in regards to our chosen topic, we're going to divide the discussion into two stages: the query stage, and the manuscript/revision stage. And in both, I'm going to start by sharing about what I did, and Rose will respond with the things/aspects that worked for her and convinced her that a potential client might be a good match for what she can offer. So let's begin!

The first time I heard about Rose was through attending a writers workshop led by her client, Thanhha Lai, author of INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN, who invited us to query her lovely agent. Rose only accepts query letters during the initial stage, so on July 7th in 2013, I sent one out that read like this:

Dear Ms. Rosemary Stimola,

My story titled The Bride from Huanan is a historical MG fantasy of around 74,000 words that is set in the northern Taiyuan province in Ancient China during the Song Dynasty (around 1260 AD). Intertwined with Chinese folklore and common beliefs during that period, I would think of the story as something similar to Memoirs of a Geisha, but geared towards younger readers, with magical elements thrown in. The story centers around a girl who was sold by her lower class family at the age of ten to become the wife and nursemaid to an infant husband -- a practice called the tongyang xi that was still common in China before the CCP took over around the 1920's. Although the theme of arranged marriages is not uncommon in stories that are set in Asian countries, I believe that the practice of the tongyang xi remains a foreign idea to many in the Western world, and it is my wish to be able to share such knowledge with readers. I believe that I am well-equipped to tell this story, for my own great grandmother had been a tongyang xi who had escaped and migrated out of China to Malaysia where she had settled. I have heard these tales from my grandmother and used information from mostly primary sources.

In this story, the protagonist endures physical abuse and emotional alienation common for a tongyang xi and is eventually sold by her in-laws to a brothel. She is therefore propelled into running away before she loses her chastity, hoping to return to her old home. On that journey, she encounters the woods, snowstorms, and curious strangers of the ethereal kind. She also attempts to come to terms with her supposedly dishonorable desires to disobey her elders and take charge of her own life, and feelings of bitterness and anger that stemmed from the betrayal of her family who sold her into a miserable life of oppression and degradation. Her homecoming to something completely unexpected eventually helps her to discover the answers to her internal struggles, so that she will finally be able to find peace in that she has earned, and that which can never be.

I grew up in Malaysia and later lived in Melbourne for 4 years to finish my BA in English literature, and spent 6 years working in Malaysia. I am now an international student completing an MFA in creative writing at The New School in New York. I have studied under Ms. Thanhha Lai during the Summer Writer’s Week in Manhattanville College, which is how I heard about you and your agency. I have submitted to a few other agents simultaneously, but have not received any reply yet. I would like to thank you in advance for the time and attention you'll be giving my query and will be anxiously waiting for your reply.

Celeste Lim


There is great joy in finding and nurturing new talent. And for most, the path to that discovery begins
with a query letter—a calling card that strives to stand out in a literal deluge of dailyunsolicited queries. Brief, substantive and persuasive, a good query letter has three baseline components; 1/ the connection; 2/the pitch; 3/the bio, each no more than a paragraph long, chronologically ordered to put your best foot forward, and totaling no more than a page.

Celeste Lim’s query letter for The Bride from Huanan in 2013, which will be published in Winter 2017 as THE CRYSTAL RIBBON with Scholastic Press, hit all three marks with polish, personality and voice that struck a chord, captured my ear and piqued my interest. Timing was in her favor, as I was looking for a multicultural fantasy with historical underpinnings, and it was clear to me she had researched the time and place in which this story would unfold. I was also intrigued by her family history, which I felt would help to lend a sense of intimacy to the writing.

Her first paragraph goes right to the heart of the story being pitched, succinctly laying the groundwork of the historical period of this middle grade and introducing the cultural practice of selling young girls into marriage, which would play a central role in this narrative of approximately 74,000 words.

Her second paragraph introduces her main protagonist, a sympathetic character who struggles with and rails against cultural traditions and expectations, and who immediately exudes a sense of strength and determination that will accompany her on her difficult journey. (Those familiar with my list know a strong young female protagonist is always a go-to for me, so one that would be enveloped by folkloric magic from medieval China was not to be passed by!)

Celeste’s third paragraph speaks of a personal history that gives proximity to the culture framing her narrative, and an educational history that suggests she has worked to hone her craft in creative writing. The personal connection to my author, Thanhha Lai, carries particular weight, not only conveying familiarity with this author’s work, but also demonstrating she had done her homework on my agency and the kind of work we represent.

Overall, Celeste’s query letter spoke confidently about a book, personal and marketable, and her ability to tell this story without hyperbole or unrealistic expectation. She also did me the courtesy of letting me know she had submitted her query to other agents as well.

There was pleasure in this letter that hinted at the pleasure I might find in the pages of her book. I wanted to know more about ancient China; I wanted to know more about the folklore and common beliefs of the period. And I wanted to know more about this girl sold into marriage at ten years of age. Yes, I had to respond and request.


Thank you so much, Rose! I remember during my early querying days, I was always scouring the Internet for more information such as this, and I feel so happy I'm now able to share our experience to help other writers :)

So, now we're proceeding to the manuscript stage.

After sending in the full thing, I didn't hear back for 19 days (though it felt more like 19 years and I'm sure many could relate ;) Finally, the email I received from Rose's lovely assistant, Allison Remcheck, was long – too long to be a form rejection, that I was used to receiving by then, so my heart was stuck firmly in my throat as I read her email. There were really wonderful comments about how much they loved the story and what they liked about it, but 80% of the email talked about things that they felt needed more work. In the end, I realized they were asking for a non-contractual R&R (a revise and resubmit), which didn’t guarantee an offer at the end. But after some piteous crying and soul-searching (do I really want this? Am I up for this?) I agreed to do it, because no matter how much I hate the idea of doing such major rewrites, I could tell from the detailed and constructive feedback that they really had a firm grasp of what the story was about, and probably knew (better than me, who's too emotionally invested in the story) how to further bring out its potential. I figured that, even if Rose did not offer me representation at the end, I could still possibly come away with a better novel for my next round of queries.

So I slaved away at the R&R, and after close to 3 months of hermit-like existence (my roommates probably suspected I had died in my room), I emailed Rose a novel that I knew at least I was happy with. Allison replied me on the same day telling me how excited she was to read the revision, but reminded me that I needed to keep the manuscript exclusive in the meantime. This condition put a damper on things, especially when another agent from an agency I was also eager to hear from had expressed an interest in the story a couple weeks later. So, during the waiting period, I was counting the days, hours, minutes, manically checking my inbox every chance I had. I was plagued with thoughts like, “They’d probably decide to pass in the end, and where would you be?” and “What if the other agent got tired of waiting?” and “What if they take forever to get back to you?”

Well, it turned out I only had to wait a month, and then Allison got back to me with a very encouraging email – they were utterly enchanted by the revision. And as I continued to read, I was almost expecting a mention of the offer… but it didn’t come. Not in this email. According to Allison, the story still needed a few minor tweaks. One of the main things I had to do in this revision was to cut the 91,000-word novel by about a third.

I went and cried in the shower. But after two hours in it, I came to realize it's really not a bad thing at all. A request for revision shows interest, doesn't it? So I went back to work. It was a heartbreaking process. I had to kill so many of my darlings – those scenes that I really loved but had to admit didn’t feel as essential to the story as other parts, many lyrical paragraphs that are beautiful but unnecessary. And a month after, I ended up with a condensed version of the story. Then it was back to the waiting, and somehow, going through this a second time felt far worse than the first. I was impatient, I was restless, I was anxiety-ridden and frustrated. I forced myself to write and barely produced anything worth a second look. But there was nothing else to do besides distracting myself as much as possible. My darling classmates and professors from my creative writing program were endlessly encouraging; my friends asked me out as much as possible; my family called me from Malaysia every other day; it was a dreary period, but that was also when I realized how much support I had around me.

And then, finally, a month later, Rose gave me a call. Or should I say, THE call. It wasn’t as magical as I had envisioned a thousand times before (I answered the phone in the middle of a nap, all groggy and stuff), but the news still took my breath away. I now have an agent! And I cannot be more thankful that this person is Rose :)


When I share a manuscript with editors, it is understood I do not think it is “done”, as every editor is going to go through another round of revision, maybe more. I need this first draft to convince them that this is a story not only worth their time and one that I think will be of personal appeal based on my knowledge of their interests, but also one that will position well in the current marketplace. Celeste’s first draft was a good one, solid in voice with characters of depth and complexity, presenting a solid foundation upon which to build. With all that I liked, I needed to see that Celeste was a willing and able reviser, able to bring many narrative elements to the surface in a “show” and not “tell” manner.

In this case, I shared the manuscript with my editorial assistant, Allison Remcheck. After reading, we discussed our concerns and decided we would ask for a non-contractual revision in exchange for detailed notes and an exclusive look at the new draft. Celeste agreed, and Allison became the studio point person, guiding Celeste through not just one but two drafts, fine-tuning and polishing for submission purposes.

Some aspects of the story were a bit too mature and/or abstract for a middle grade audience, so we needed some tempering. There were many historical and cultural elements in this medieval Chinese setting, and we wanted to be sure all were deftly woven into the narrative in ways that did not slow or halt plot flow with areas of explanation that added too much bulk to the text—she had to trim a great deal and keep things moving at a pace that would keep readers turning those pages. Add to that the presence of magic in a cultural setting, and we had to be sure all felt consistent in this world such that readers would not only understand, but also suspend disbelief.

Once I had that draft, we were able to move forward with representation confidently and with a trust that is essential to a good author/agent relationship.

You can find Celeste at:
Website: http://www.celesteplim.com/
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/VeryCeleste/
Twitter: @veryCeleste
Buy/ Pre-order links:

You can find Rosemary at:

Here's a description of THE CRYSTAL RIBBON on Goodreads:

In the village of Huanan, in medieval China, the deity that rules is the Great Huli Jing. Though twelve-year-old Li Jing's name is a different character entirely from the Huli Jing, the sound is close enough to provide constant teasing-but maybe is also a source of greater destiny and power. Jing's life isn't easy. Her father is a poor tea farmer, and her family has come to the conclusion that in order for everyone to survive, Jing must be sacrificed for the common good. She is sold as a bride to the Koh family, where she will be the wife and nursemaid to their three-year-old son, Ju'nan. It's not fair, and Jing feels this bitterly, especially when she is treated poorly by the Koh's, and sold yet again into a worse situation that leads Jing to believe her only option is to run away, and find home again. With the help of a spider who weaves Jing a means to escape, and a nightingale who helps her find her way, Jing embarks on a quest back to Huanan--and to herself.

Celeste has generously offered an ARC of THE CRYSTAL RIBBON for a giveaway. To enter, all you need to do is be a follower anyway you want and leave a comment through February 18th. If your e-mail is not on your Google Profile, you must leave it in the comments to enter the contest.

If you mention this contest on Twitter, Facebook, or your blog, mention this in the comments and I'll give you an extra entry. You must be 13 or older to enter. The giveaway is for U.S.

Here's what's coming up:

Monday February 6th, debut author Dana Langer will be doing a guest post with a giveaway of her MG fantasy SIREN SISTERS

Monday February 13th debut author Elly Blake will be here doing a guest post with her agent Suzie Townsend with a giveaway of Elly's YA fantasy FROSTBLOOD and a a query critique giveaway by Suzie

Monday February 20th debut author Ali Standish will be doing a guest post with a giveaway of her MG contemporary THE ETHAN I WAS BEFORE

Wednesday, February 22nd, I have an agent spotlight with Linda Camacho with a query critique giveaway

Hope to see you on Monday!


L. Diane Wolfe said...

I go through phases where I can't read. We grow and change and our needs change, which affects what we read. I went through a phase where I read hundreds of self-help style books and I really needed that at the time.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Yes, reading about people going through similar situation as we are can be a balm. It drives home that we're not alone, for one. But if the stories are handled well, they can be a light shining to bring us past the hard times. *hugs*

Rachna Chhabria said...

Hi Natalie, I also go through phases when I am unable to read. And reading books for reviews has made me so very critical that I feel I am losing the joy of reading for sheer pleasure.

Bish Denham said...

I'm an eclectic reader. I do seem to go through periods where I read more of one genre than another, but I jump around all over the place. As for not reading, I can't remember a time where I didn't have a book at my bedside.

I love the premise of Celeste's book, The Crystal Ribbon. How exciting and frustrating it must have been for her as she revised and waited. I have tweeted about the giveaway.

Christine Rains said...

I have noticed big life changes do affect my reading. After having my son, I don't read (or watch) so much horror. I'm also a more critical reader as well.

Congrats to Celeste! Gorgeous cover.

Jennifer Hawes said...

Your interviews are the best! I love delving into the lives of literary agents and finding out what they look for in a query/pitch. Thanks for sharing!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Glad you've expanded your reading. I've read genres I would've never read if not for my author friends and it's expanded my thinking. And writing knowledge.

Crystal Collier said...

Natalie, thank you for sharing your experience. I can see where a great loss might throw all kinds of normal behaviors out the window. It's nice to know we eventually can get it back...mostly.

I'm going to have to track that book down for the kidlets. It sounds fantastic!

Unknown said...

I've never been able to read MG or YA. Even though it's so popular among adult women, I don't get their interest. Young characters are too naive and histrionic to interest me. I'm glad you're reading adult now, who have serious problems and deep, complex characters. Have a lovely week!

mshatch said...

I had a horrible reading year last year. I'm hoping this year will be better. I like reading across the genres, YA, MG, SciFi/fantasy, history...

The Crystal Ribbon sounds fantastic :)

erica and christy said...

Thank you for sharing your experience. I definitely feel that our own lives affect what we choose/need to read. It's interesting to think we may notice our reading styles change before we realize we're healing in certain areas of our grief, struggles, and pain. I have rarely analyzed what genres I'm gravitating toward and why, but looking back, I can see it's like I needed something for myself. It's like food cravings, but with books. We don't even realize at surface level what we need. Christy

S.P. Bowers said...

I do believe we need to read in our genre and know what is out there, but I find if I limit my reading to only that I'm also limiting my writing. And, like you, reading helps me deal with life, and I need to read books pertinent to me, not just my writing.

Congrats on Crystal Ribbon. It sounds like an amazing book! And I loved hearing about the process it took to get it where it needed to be.

Theresa Milstein said...

Natalie, thank you for sharing your story in relation to reading. I can only imagine what a loss like that did to you. I agree--we read what we need to read for that time.

And thank you to Rosemary and Celeste. The points of view on the same submission are important to know. Funny because I knew Celeste got the agent, but I was stressed for her as I read it! If I'm ever in this position, I'll work hard and know to keep the faith.

Karen Lange said...

It's nice to meet Celeste and Rosemary! Wishing them well.

Nice to see your IWSG post too, Natalie. Reading has changed for me too. I catch more grammatical things, items in plot, etc. I'll pass on the giveaway this time around. Have a good rest of the week!

Jemi Fraser said...

Great interview - thanks for the insights!! :)

I have reading cycles too. The last 15 months have been incredibly chaotic here and sometimes the only thing I can do to cope is read. It's even overtaken sleep sometimes. It's funny how the brain works in different ways to help us cope.

Denise Covey said...

Wow. Great post, Natalie. I learned so much about the query process which I'm sure I'll suck at, having never done it before, but I copied some of it and may find it helpful when I'm crafting my own. What a long, drawn-out, humbling process the whole biz is. Poor authors is all I can say!!

Hope you're enjoying the IWSG experience, Natalie!

Denise :-)

Olga Godim said...

Life experience, especially tragic events, inevitably change us, and of course our reading habits. Thanks for sharing, Natalie.
Gorgeous cover of the book you present today!

Sheena-kay Graham said...

I know reading wide is important but mainly read YA which I love. I intend to read more widely and bought an adult historical fiction novel for my birthday last year (along with a new phone. Finally I can take videos and pictures!). Congrats Celeste and all the best. Chinese history is so full of stories in the making I can see why this book exists. Indeed Natalie life including tragic parts can shake and bring changes in us. Glad you got back to reading again.Happy IWSG and your guests today were great. :)

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

If I'm not enjoying a book, I don't force myself to finish it anymore as well. Way, way too many great books out there begging to be read.

THE CRYSTAL RIBBON sounds special.

Unknown said...

What a great interview. Please enter me in the drawing monicachess26(@)gmail(.)com

Claire Bobrow said...

It's great to get an inside look at how an author and agent approached the query and revision stages on a project. Thanks for the insights, Celeste and Rosemary, and best of luck with The Crystal Ribbon!

Rosi said...

I know what you mean about not reading after your husbands death. I struggle with reading all the time. I can't recommend enough Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. It is the perfect read for when you get back to reading after such a life-altering event.

What a wonderful, rich post full of so much good information that will be helpful to me going forward. Thanks for that. I will pass on the giveaway. I am simply buried in books right now.

Loni Townsend said...

My young children make it hard for me to read paperbacks. Digital is easier because I can just click off the screen. :)

jpetroroy said...

What a lovely interview. This looks wonferful.

Danielle H. said...

Thanks for sharing your personal life and how it affected your reading prefereneces. I thankfully haven't experienced such a great loss in my life, but I know others have and you're especially a blessing for them. I shared on twitter.

dolorah said...

So sorry about your husband.

I think we all have a point where we only read in our writing genre. Its a learning process. Eventually you just feel like you are "working" all the time and need to just relax into something for fun. Good that you are able to branch out with your entertainment and still dive into a writing project.

Tamara Narayan said...

Fascinating interview and full of good information. I'm surprised the query went into so many details (even though it was still a single page.) I can certainly identify with the author's struggles in regards to the waiting and the pain of chopping down a manuscript. But the rewards are worth it.

As a fan of Memoirs of a Geisha, I'd be thrilled to win this contest: tamara (dot) narayan (at) gmail (dot) com

Cherie Reich said...

I understand about being in a phase where you want to read different books than the norm. I go through those too.

Congrats to Celeste! The Crystal Ribbon sounds like a fascinating read!

Stephanie Faris said...

(((HUGS))) I've been through several traumatic times in my life and, yes, those were the times I couldn't read. Your mind just needs to settle, if that makes sense. They say meditation can help...it helps calm your mind. But really, in the end, you just need to go through it to find your way to the other side.

Beth said...

Since becoming a writer, I've become more discerning of the books I read. I try to read excellent books in whatever genre I choose and hope I can learn something from every book I pick up.
I'm not in the U.S, so no need to enter me in the contest.

Unknown said...

I'd love a copy to read. I just added this to my TBR, I can't believe I haven't heard of it before!

My email is broke(dot)book(dot)bank(at)gmail(dot)com

TamiWritesStuff said...

What a beautiful cover! Congrats!