Sold my debut novel, ENTER TITLE HERE, to Disney-Hyperion in a two-book deal

Lisa Yoskowitz at Hyperion has bought World English rights to Rahul Kanakia’s debut y.a. ENTER TITLE HERE, in a two-book deal, at auction. Pitched as Gossip Girl meets House of Cards, the story follows over-achiever Reshma Kapoor as she launches a Machiavellian campaign to reclaim her valedictorian status after being caught plagiarizing. Publication is set for fall 2015. John M. Cusick of Greenhouse Literary brokered the deal.

–Publisher’s Weekly, “Rights Report: Week of May 5, 2014”

I’ve been writing and submitting stories for about ten and a half years. For the first six of those years, I had very little success. And one of the major notes I’d get back on my personal rejections was, “Your main character was too unsympathetic.”

And that always bothered me, because, to me, the characters were not unsympathetic. To me, they were just people, doing their best to make their way in the world.

About five years ago (it was in the spring of 2009), I got a “We didn’t sympathize with this character” rejection that drove me over the edge. It sickened and annoyed me so much that I took to my bed like a sickly Victorian maiden. I couldn’t believe that I had so drastically failed to communicate my vision.

On that day, I was so lost and so filled with despair. I felt like I was simply repeating the same mistakes over and over again, but I had no idea what they were or how I was supposed to fix them.

But one thing I decided was that maybe the short story wasn’t the right form for me. Maybe the novel length was what I really needed if I was going to bring my characters to life. So I decided to write a novel.

And eighteen months later, I finished one. In ALL THE MORNINGS BETWEEN YESTERDAY AND TOMORROW, an entire city is doomed to repeat the same day (it’s like Groundhog’s Day, if the entire town had been aware that the day was repeating). I meant it as an existential tale about how to find meaning in life when your actions don’t really matter.

And the book sucked. It was just really confusing and illogical.

So I wrote another novel. That book was THIS BEAUTIFUL FEVER, which was a young adult novel about a gay teen with self-image issues who lived in an alternate version of America that had fallen prey to a disease which made people inhumanely beautiful (even as it slowly killed them). It was a novel that I wrote in a white-hot fury, over the course of eight days, and it was a book that contained so much of me. I polished that book up and wrote a query and sent out that query to 93 agents (and four publishers).

(In the meantime, I wrote a third book. BOOM was an adult-market science fiction novel about a massive economic boom that’s sparked by the discovery of an infinite supply of [uninhabited] alternate Earths. The novel was, for various reasons, pretty terrible. Again, the problem was incoherent worldbuilding).

In the end, THIS BEAUTIFUL FEVER was turned down by soooooo many agents, but it did win second place in the Tu Books New Visions Contest. Although I was disappointed at the result, it turned out to be a blessing, because the winner of the contest got in touch with me and introduced me to an agent whom she knew. And that agent fell in love with the book and gave me an offer of representation.

John really did believe very strongly in the book. He gave me some excellent comments, and we went through three rounds of revision on it. He pitched it hard to editors and, after arousing a fair amount of interest, we ended up going on submission to five editors in October of last year. By mid-December, all of them had turned it down. In their comments, many said that the main character struck them as too unlikeable.

In the normal course of events, I’d have revised THIS BEAUTIFUL FEVER and we’d have sent it out on another round of revision. But I really wasn’t excited about doing that because, honestly, I’d stopped believing in the book. Although I’d absolutely loved the book for a long time, I eventually got to the point where all I could see were the gross deficiencies (and, yes, incoherency) in its world-building.

And we didn’t have to revise it or send it out because, in the interim, I’d written another book: ENTER TITLE HERE. This is another book that came out in a blind fury. I wrote almost 80% of it while I was on a 21-day family vacation in India and Sri Lanka. (The nice thing about going on vacation with my family is that we always leave plenty of free time during the day for doing work on your computer.)

ETH was a departure for me in many ways. I really don’t think I could have written it if I hadn’t started this MFA program. Before I came here, I’d written maybe 3-4 realist short stories in my entire life. I simply didn’t have the first idea about how to construct a realist story. But after being on the ground for a semester and reading my classmates’ work, I started to get a sense for it. And then this book came out of me (since writing it, I’ve written three other realist novels).

Anyway, I absolutely loved (and still love) ETH, and I always believed that it was going to succeed. When TBF was getting rejected left and right by agents, I said to myself, “Well, that’s okay, because ETH will definitely get me an agent.”

When it came time for submission, I was similarly sure that it was going to sell. I even wrote a blog post, three months ago, where I stated that I was 100% certain that this book was going to sell.

I feel like I’m too close to the submission process to really talk about it right now. But I will say that it was incredibly nerve-wracking. I discovered new levels of anxiety. You know all those posts a few weeks ago when I wrote about how sick I was? Well, all those stomach upsets were ‘just’ anxiety. Which was a bit shocking to me. I couldn’t believe that it was possible for me to manifest an entirely new physiological reaction to a common emotional state. I honestly think that this submissions process left me feeling more anxious than I have ever felt before in my life.

Which is interesting, because I didn’t feel nearly as anxious when the last book was on sub.

Anyway, the book sold. I am very happy about the deal. When we spoke on the phone, I liked the acquiring editor, Lisa Yoskowitz, quite a lot, and I look forward to working with her.

I feel extremely grateful to my agent, John Cusick. He put an immense amount of time and effort into getting me to this place. Not only did he read and comment on six drafts (divided between two books), but he also just sold the hell out of (both) books and aroused alot of interest in them. When you consider the actual sums that he stood to make from the sale, it almost doesn’t seem worth it. There are definitely easier ways to make that amount of money.

John was also the one who believed in me and saw potential in the manuscript that 93 other agents (and five publishers) didn’t think was so hot. More than anyone else I’ve encountered in my writing career, I feel like I owe him something. He deserves much more than the actual amount of money he’s going to get out of this.

Oh, and I also owe a ton to Valynne Nagamatsu. She did not have to contact me out of the blue and offer to put me in touch with John, but she did. It was a totally uncalled-for bit of proactive thoughtfulness, and I hope that I’ll someday manage to be as gracious as she is.

Anyway, as I’ve slowly been telling people the news, many of them have said something to me like, “You must be so happy” or “You must be so excited.”

And…I am, but I’m also not. I’m definitely excited and happy, but I am not more excited and happy than I’ve ever been in my life. The whole submissions process involved a lot of anxiety and strong emotions and sleep loss, and it sort of sapped my ability to feel positive emotions. Furthermore, all the good news came in little spurts (one offer here, then another offer there, the auction is starting, bids are coming in, etc). So whereas my friends and family experienced the news in one big moment*, I actually experienced it over the course of about three weeks.

But one of my writer friends did manage to get at the core of my emotions. She said something like, “Oh my god. You wrote that book. And they’re going to publish it. They’re going to publish something you wrote.”

I feel like a wizard who’s spent the last ten years trying and failing to summon a demon. I knew that I was on the right track, because sometimes there’d be a little spurt of flame, and, once in a great while, a little half-formed imp would appear. But I still felt like I was so  far away from actually producing something.  And then, one day, I came in and etched the pentagram and made the hand motions and recited the words, and then the room suddenly filled with smoke…

To me, the most amazing thing about this whole process is that I’ve finally managed to interest someone in one of my ‘unlikeable’ characters (and believe me, Reshma is one of the most unsympathetic protagonists I’ve ever written). I almost can’t believe that, after so many years of being at the fringes and acquiring rejections and achieving half-successes and then sliding back down into failure, I actually managed to write something that makes people experience an emotional reaction that is somewhat close to what I intended them to experience.**

 Joy-lifesize2

*My absolute favorite part of the submissions process was telling my mom that I’d gotten an offer from a big six publisher…and that another publisher was interested…and that we were probably going to go to auction. Watching her eyes get wider and wider really drove home, for the first time, the enormity of what was happening.

**Of course, one thing about talking to so many editors was that I also realized a number of ways in which I didn’t succeed in my aims. But whatever. I got close enough to sell the damn thing.

22 thoughts on “Sold my debut novel, ENTER TITLE HERE, to Disney-Hyperion in a two-book deal

  1. Elyzabeth

    WOW WOW WOW so so so very glad this happened now! and this entire post just makes me incredibly curious about ALL of those unlikeable characters. I have quite a soft spot for unreliable unlikeable and unredeemed characters in realistic and also spec fiction. I am so happy for you and look forward to following it all!!!

  2. Bogi Takács

    Congrats!!! Very much looking forward to reading the book! I’m also both surprised and not-so-surprised that it’s realistic fiction, if that makes any sense? I can totally see something like this from you, knowing your style.

    (Also, how can you write novels that fast O.O My arms would fall off!)

  3. Rob Cobbs

    Congrats! I look forward to reading it, even if I’m not exactly the target audience.

  4. Daniel Steinbock

    YES. I knew this day would come.* Your dedication to your work is an unstoppable force of nature.

    It’s been great to see you reflecting on your physical well-being in the same breath as your professional and intellectual reflections. Being a writer is not unlike being an endurance athlete and seeing you tune your body and physical environment in concert with your writing craft has really been something I admire and celebrate you for — on top of today’s wonderful news.

    * See our gchat transcript, 9/19/09.

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