Ronreads interview: Kate Evangelista

If you haven’t done so already, the story that I did on Kate Evagelista came out yesterday on the paper that I work for. It outlines the journey she had to publication, and some advice she’d like to share with other young writers looking to break into the scene internationally.

But just like a lot of the interviews that I do, there’s also quite a bit that doesn’t make it onto the printed page — damned space constraits! So here’s the entire transcript of that interview, with all the other parts left in!

(Warning for spoilers!)

RONREADS (RR): I really liked how you went with zombies rather than the vampires that I was expecting.

KATE EVANGELISTA (KE): I think vampires were all the rage at the time I was writing it. “Twilight” had just come out, and I was thinking that I wanted to go the other way kasi at the time, wala pa, there were no books about zombies. I think there were, but they were still in pre-pub. When the zombie books came out, the trend overtook me.

RR: “Warm Bodies” is being made into a movie with Nicholas Hoult.

KE: Yeah. There were a lot of zombie books already out. And then “Walking Dead” came out, so I became part of a trend, oh no (laughs).

RR: Was “Taste” the first novel you’ve written or have you been writing before?

KE: “Taste” is actually my second. The one with Entangled Press right now is “Til Death”, that was actually my first YA novel that I wrote. It used to be more of a high fantasy type of story, and when I was submitting it to agents, they were rejecting it. It’s a very difficult genre to break into. With YA, they don’t have that many high fantasies. The only one that really broke into it was Christopher Paolini and he self-published through his parents. Knopf just got him.

They were rejecting “Til Death”, so I said I’ll write another one. I was really thinking that I didn’t want to be the writer who only wrote one book and submits that again and again 10 years later. I thought that the more books I wrote, the better. There were more chances of getting published. That was my main goal, to really share my stories with the world, no matter if it was the first book, the second book, or the third book, as long as one of them or all of them gets published.

“Taste” is the first off the gate, and I think “Til Death” will come out next year. “Til Death” is a whole different storyline. It’s an urban fantasy with Entangled. I have another one, another paranormal romance, it’s with OmniFic and it’s called “Reaping Me Softly”.

RR: So it’s with different publishing houses?

KE: I didn’t want to stick to one publishing house. I wanted to try them all since each publishing house has a different methodology, a different business acumen. Now with many publishers under my belt — which you cannot do if you have an agent because your agent would want to submit to just one publishing house every book — I know that if I write science fiction it will go perfectly with this publishing house. If I write urban fantasy, it’s good with this publishing house. I’m giving myself many options with many publishers.

Somewhere in that crowd is Kate Evangelista.

RR: How did you break in without an agent? The popular understanding is that you need an agent to break into the publishing industry overseas.

KE: I had an agent at first. When Sam had her book launch, I was there and I was currently agented at the time. You only need an agent if you want to break into the bigger publishers — Simon and Schuster, Scholastic, Random House. They don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts anymore. The smaller houses, you can submit unsolicited. You don’t need an agent to submit to them anymore. That’s what I like about the smaller presses more.

What I found with bigger publishers is that their attention for you is only as big as their advance. If you give an author  $100,000 as an advance, you have to give them all your attention because you need to promote the book and make back that $100,000 before you get your royalties. If they only give you $2000 or $5000, that means you’re a mid-list author, and their attention isn’t as concentrated on you. They would go for more of James Patterson or Stephenie Meyer.

I’m sure if Stephenie Meyer had a new book, all she’d say is “I have a new book!” and they would all say “Publish it with us!” Same thing with J.K. Rowling. She’s coming out with an adult novel now, and everyone’s anticipating that. When you’re that big of a writer, they cannot help but put all of their energies towards that because they know they’ve made money with you before.

With smaller publishers like Crescent Moon, Entangled, and OmniFic, I noticed that they’re more writer-centric. You’re all on the same level, whether you’re a bestseller or a debut author. They all treat you the same. It’s all about getting the best work out there and letting the readers decide.

I like the support. There are author loops that you belong to right away. If you get bad reviews, they commiserate with you, and if you get good reviews, they celebrate with you. It’s a good place to be as opposed to being with a big publisher. I suppose if I were with a big publisher I wouldn’t know the authors who are there with the big publisher, I’d feel more alone. Now, I have a group who I can advice from if something happens. A lot of them are very willing to help you promote your book as well.

RR: Is this the first time you’re being published?

KE: I’ve been published locally but just in terms of articles.

RR: Are you the first writer in the family?

KE: My dad used to want to write but then he got into business. He’s been telling me that I’m fulfilling his dream (laughs). He’s really happy and he’s really proud. So far now, I’m the only one, but it’s turning into a trend. Everyone in my family wants to write now. My dad’s writing his memoirs, my brother’s writing high fantasy. The only one not writing now is my mom because she’s a librarian. We’re all inclined towards writing but I guess I’m the first one to actually say “I’m going to get published.”

When I first told my parents about it, they were supportive. I cam from Med so I had to walk in and tell my parents that I was shifting to Literature at De La Salle University. I think there was a week of big disappointment, but when they started seeing that it was what I really wanted and what I really wanted to pursue, then they thought that I was going to be okay.

I took up Master’s courses as well, but I don’t have the degree yet because the thesis is you have to write a novel. I thought I could circumvent having to defend my novel in front of a panel and just try getting published. I’m hoping that they would give me the degree that way, but if not, it’s no big deal.

St. Scholastica's-Westgrove, the inspiration for Barinkoff

RR: But you were already writing at a young age?

KE: High school. I started getting interested in writing second year in high school at Southville International. My English teacher gave us a writing assignment and I started writing short stories and she said that I had something. I think teachers are really important in that way when they say that you have potential. In your young mind, you think that you can really do something. That’s when I started writing really bad. I knew nothing of grammar, formatting was iffy at best.

But my classmates, what I love about them, was that every time I had a new story, pipilahan nila and they would be kilig and I liked that. But whenever they would ask what I would take up in college I would say Medicine (laughs). I was adamant that I would take Medicine, but when I got there I knew that it was not for me.

RR: Do you feel like your novel would have been published if your heroine was Filipino?

KE: Yes, I believe that what publishers in the States are looking for is a story, no matter who you’re heroine or hero is. Whether they’re Filipino, Black, American, or Hispanic, as long as the story is there, they will publish you. Even if Phoenix was Filipino, they would have said that there’s something here we’d probably like to publish.

RR: What was the inspiration for Barinkoff?

KE: Barinkoff came to me by accident. I knew what they had to be, but they needed to be in a secluded place because otherwise the eating of forbidden flesh would be difficult for them. I couldn’t put them in a metropolis because a massacre would have happened. I needed them in a place that’s secluded enough. I needed them to be near Europe but not too near, but not too far that the reference to the Black Plague would have been too far-fetched.

I liked the idea of a school that caters to very intelligent students that’s very secluded. i feel like their main purpose is to study, and to do that they needed to be in an environment that’s secluded enough to allow them to do that. Everything clicked into place when I found Barinkoff.

RR: Which came first, the idea for the school or the idea for the novel?

KE: I used to teach in St. Scholastica’s in Westgrove. Every afternoon they would have this ritual where they would ring this bell and all the students have to be at the guardhouse by about five in the afternoon to wait for their parents to pick them up.

I wondered why the students couldn’t be roaming around campus at a certain time. In my head, the rational explanation is that the nuns are in prayer, so you can’t disturb them. But in my head, I thought, “What happens at night? What comes out at night?” That’s where the idea for the story started. That’s why when you begin reading it, it’s Phoenix waking up to the ringing of the bell in the library and she’s all alone and it’s getting dark and she realizes that she broke curfew. The story started with that scene.

When it comes to writing, I start with characters. The characters are there and then they tell me their story. The world-building comes from them. They tell me that they were here, that the room is like this, the school is this big, the society is like this. Character first and then story after. This was five years ago.

RR: So did it take you five years to write the whole thing?

KE: No. From that source of inspiration, since I was still a teacher, I didn’t have time. When you’re a teacher you bring work home so I couldn’t write anything. I only started writing it when I got my third job, which is being an essay consultant. I had more time there, so I started writing it. I had my other essay consultant friends check grammatical and typographical errors. I think I wrote the first draft in six months.

After six months, I was audacious enough to start submitting, which is not good. I think I have rejection slips a mile high. Then I started researching the process of submitting to agents and what you need to really do. After that, it took me about two years to get an agent. The first idea came five years ago, started writing it by the third, and then the fourth year I got an agent, a year later I broke up with said agent, a couple of months after that, “Taste” found a home with Crescent Moon Press, and then seven months it’s out.

RR: Did you get an editor before it went to the publisher?

KE: I had critique partners. I realized that having critique partners who are writers, who want to be writers as well, you have the same knowledge and growth factor when it comes  to your work. Finding critique partners, having them edit your work, read and comment. Once you’ve polished it to where it’s readable, that’s when you can start submitting.

I realized through this process that you don’t have to write the perfect novel. There’s no such thing. The moment you get an editor they will still want to edit and change the story somehow. You just need to get your novel to a point where the editor will see potential in there, and to know that you need to read lots of books. I really immersed myself in the YA genre. I read anything and everything I could get my hands on, especially if it was paranormal because I had to see what was already out there and how far I could go when it comes to kissing scenes, how graphic I can get. I think it was in the ninth draft of “Taste” when my editor told me that I was going into purple prose when it came to the kissing scenes. I had to tone that down. Of course, I had to find out if there could be sex scenes. Not all young adult novels have sex scenes. If they do, they’re closed doors.

There are a LOT of fanmade covers of Midnight Sun out there. Just saying.

RR: What were some of the difficulties of having your work edited and critiqued online?

KE: The scary part is that they don’t steal your story (laughs). Or what happened with Stephenie Meyer’s “Midnight Sun”. It was leaked and it wasn’t even finished yet. That’s the initial fear. But once you get over that, it’s easy. You just send one chapter at a time, we exchange, and then we just embed track changes. There are comments on the side, where they tell you if something needs tweaking. It was very easy after the initial fear. That initial fear is the hard part.

Moving forward, that is what I need to be careful of because I have publishing contracts. If my works get leaked before the editing process, I might not be able to get publishing contracts for them. It’s more dangerous now for me, as opposed to before. That’s the only hardship.

I’ve been really lucky when it comes to critique partners because they’ve been really nice and they all know that we’re in the same boat, trying to get published, getting our work out there. It’s not as difficult as it might seem. Scary, but not difficult.

RR: So you didn’t have an editor in the conventional sense?

KE: I only had an editor when I had contracts already. “Taste” had two. “Til Death” will have one. “Reaping” will have two as well.

I would submit manuscripts to them. With “Taste”, there were four passes of edits. The first pass, my editor gives me notes based on her reading of the story. She would give me notes on character development, motivation, storyline. Do I need to add another chapter? Maybe I should tone down the kissing scene, things like that. I edit based on those notes. Once I submit those edits, she then gives me a second pass edit with her track changes notes. It gets a bit confusing by then. If you saw the first chapter of “Taste” with her notes, the notes did not even fit the page (laughs)!

It was overwhelming at first, but then I realized it was for the good of the novel. By the third and fourth pass, that’s when I started realizing that it’s starting to sound like a novel. When I was editing it before, it still felt like there was something missing. It didn’t sound like a novel. The third and fourth pass is proofreading. When I reached that point, “Taste” started to sound like something you would buy off a bookstore. I felt really happy about that.

I think it’s easier now with the internet as opposed to before. You’d have red pens on your whole manuscript. Dumudugo ang manuscript mo! (Your manuscript is bleeding!) With track changes, they either erase the line completely or they ask you change things a little bit. They give you notes. I find it easier after you stop being overwhelmed by the amount of notes. They can guide you step by step as to how to improve the novel.

The characters of 'Taste' get the anime treatment over at Book Whales.

RR: Were there some changes made to “Taste” that would surprise some readers if they knew what it looked like during the first draft?

KE: In the first draft, Luka used to be named Yuri, but then my editor said that she surveyed a couple of teenage girls and they said that Yuri is not a name that they would gravitate to. I had to change his name. Priya used to be Anita.

In the draft that I had with my agent, Luka was actually the guy that she ends up with. But when it reached my editor, she said that the hero that saves the heroine first needs to be that the hero that the heroine ends up with. I think you notice that in romance novels the hero who she meets first is the hero she ends up with. If “Taste” becomes a trilogy, which i’m hoping for in the near future, in the very end I really believe it’s going to be her and Luka. But right now it’s standalone. My editor told me that you cannot break the trust of the readers.

I don’t know yet if there’s going to be a second book, but there’s definitely room for more of the story. We’ll have to wait and see because my contract with Crescent Moon is one book and first refusal. If I write a second book, they have the right to look at it first.

RR: Did you have any preconceived notions about the publishing industry and breaking into it? Or did you go into it with an open mind.

KE: I think I had preconceived notions. I think I saw it as steps. Write the book, edit it into the ground, get an agent, published.

What happened to me was write the book, edit it into the ground, get an agent, break up with agent, get publisher. When I got an agent, I started reading horror stories of writers who got agents and nothing happened. They had to break up with their agent and they found another one and they got published.

Unfortunately, when I was looking for another agent, a lot of them requested “Taste” and my other books as well. But Crescent Moon was first. They wanted to publish it and they said I didn’t need an agent. It found a home, it will get out into the world. That’s all I really wanted. I realized that when it comes to smaller presses, you don’t need agents. Amanda Hocking self-published because she was super frustrated with rejections as well. And then St. Martin’s approached her and wanted to publish her. She only got an agent when St. Martin’s Press wanted to publish her.

RR: Do you plan to remain agentless?

KE: I’m open! Actually, my critique partners and I joke that if they email me for representation, I can email them a generic rejection letter (laughs)! When you’re submitting, the’d just say “Dear Author…” They don’t even mention you by name. Now you can do “Dear Agent…” It’s tempting, but we’ll see.

The publishing world is changing so much that agents are actually quaking in their boots because they’re starting to believe that they’re becoming passe. There are authors going into self-publishing and you don’t need an agent for that. Smaller presses don’t require you to have an agent. A lot of agents now are leaving the business, and it’s reached the point where matira matibay na lang talaga sila (only the toughest will remain). We’ll have to wait and see.

But Stephenie Meyer’s agent, J.K. Rowling’s agent? They can retire from all the money they’ve made from these authors. It’s really hit and miss for them, but we’ll have to wait and see. I’m still open to being represented and having a book published by one of the big publishers. But I’m really happy where I am.

Amanda Hocking

RR: What made you choose to be published internationally rather than locally?

KE: I wanted to reach as many readers as possible. I believe that internationally, that’s more possible, as opposed to being published locally. You have to wait for an international publisher to get the rights to publish your work, which can either happen or not happen at all. Why have a middleman when you can go directly to international publishers and reach the US market, the Canadian market, the European market? It’s easier to bring the books here than to get the book out there internationally.

RR: But if international publishing had not happened for you, would you have tried out local publishing?

KE: I’m never closed to that idea. I came really close to submitting to Summit. I think their policy is the first two chapters? I’m really not averse to that, but I was really looking into self-publishing. When I submitted “Taste” for the second time October of last year, I gave the universe a deadline and said that if “Taste” does not find a home by December, January I will self-publish because I was really into Amanda Hocking. But November cam and Crescent Moon came and they opened the door for me after that.

RR: Did you have any trepidation about what the Filipino literary community would think about you getting published internationally, seeing as you are neither a Fil-Am or an award-winner?

KE: My initial fear was my characters were not Filipino. But in terms of being afraid of a backlash, not anymore. I believe that anybody and everybody can get published. You just need to take that leap of faith and endure the rejection. That’s the hardest part, to go beyond thinking it’s personal, kasi when you write something it’s like your baby. After you get past that, the rejections lose a bit of their sting, but you need to keep trying. Whether you win the Palanca or not, I think that if you want to get published, you take that leap of faith and start submitting to people. How can they want to publish you if they don’t know you exist? You have to get on their radar. I’m not that concerned anymore when it comes to someone saying “Why her and not me?”

Kate Evangelista (Photo by Jozel Ann Esguerra)

RR: Do you think a lack of that faith is what’s keeping Filipino writers from breaking into a bigger market? Or is there more politics and business involved?

KE: It’s not just Filipinos. I think that the scary part is the rejection part.The thinking of whether someone will want to publish you, will your story be good enough. Once you’ve passed that barrier and climbed that wall, you’ll be able to see that someone will want to publish you and want to represent you. As long as you have a story to tell, there will be someone who will appreciate it, whether it’s one reader or a million readers. The hardest part is getting past that fear of not being good enough.

It got to me too. I quit my day job to become a writer and I had no income. My parents were supporting me, thank God, but can you imagine if you had to work and you had to write as a hobby and you’re getting rejected? It’s very easy to question yourself and ask if you want to continue this or stick to your job. It got to a point with me where it got scary for a while. I wasn’t getting an agent, and I thought that if you don’t get an agent, you won’t get published, and I might have to return to a job I don’t like. Getting over the fear and sticking to something that you love doing will get you to where you need to be. If you really want to write, research it and start submitting.

My initial fear was that because I’m from the Philippines, they won’t publish me. But it’s not like that. They’ve been really welcoming as long as you have a story that they like and that they want to publish, it doesn’t matter where you’re from. I have writers who I know who are from Ireland, Iran, Australia. You don’t need to be in the US to be published by a US publisher. And there are UK publishers, Australian publishers. As long as you get your work out there, that’s the most important thing.

RR: Do you feel added scrutiny on you? Do you feel pressure?

KE: No, I don’t really feel that kind of pressure. It’s teaching me to be more careful about what I say and do, but not necessarily that I have to live up to a certain pedestal. Whether they put me on a pedestal or put me down mentally, it doesn’t really affect me because my main interest is to keep writing. My only control in the process is writing the book, editing the book, marketing the book. If readers like it or don’t like it, I have no control. I think the only thing that makes me happy is that they read it. I can’t force them to like my stuff.

RR: What was your reaction the first time you learned that you were going to get published?

KE: I was so scared because when I was still writing it was very easy to believe in a dream when you’re still getting there. But when the dream starts getting real, you just get an out-of-body experience.

After that, I just started finding more calm in the chaos because it wasn’t just one contract. After that, “Til Death” got a contract, and then OmniFic gave me a contract as well. It really helped me to get accustomed to the feeling that these publishers gave me contracts one after the other. It helped me go into myself and feel the excitement but not faint from it anymore. I didn’t believe it with Crescent Moon at first, but when Entangled came with a contract, I knew that it was real.

RR: Where were you when you first learned about it?

KE: I learned about it from email because every morning I have this ritual where I have my breakfast and my morning drink and then answer emails. When I opened that email I thought it was a rejection letter, but they said they liked it and they wanted to publish it.

My first thought was to email everyone else who has the manuscript. When “Taste” was accepted by Crescent Moon, other publishers had the manuscript. They were also considering it for publication and the rule there is that you have to email them all and say that your book is being offered a contract for publication. I have 10 days before I say yes, so email me if you want to offer a publication contract. That’s when the other publishers either back out or counter-offer. Entangled was late to the game, but they asked for another novel of mine that they could read. They loved it and wanted to publish it.

It was for the best with Crescent Moon, because if I were with Entangled they would not have remained zombies. I would be open to changing it, but it would mean a big rewrite to the story.

RR: Did they mention what it was about “Taste” they liked?

KE: I think they liked the different twists to the zombies. Technically, they’re not zombies in the traditional sense. They liked the character of Phoenix and how she witnesses the story and her interactions with Luka and Demitiri. Their main concern at the time was the first chapter because it really needed a lot of tweaking. When we started the editing, that was the chapter that I had to edit the most. After that, that was it.

RR: How about you personally? What was it about “Taste” that you feel they gravitated to?

KE: I think it was the fact that the pacing of the story is pretty good. With “Taste” I really learned how to add cliffhangers to the end of each chapter. I realized that with cliffhangers at the end of each chapter, you’d be forced to turn the page. I think that’s what I liked the most about it.

Starbucks seems REALLY popular with writers.

RR: Do you have writing rituals?

KE: I can write anywhere as long as I have my laptop and headphones. I use music to drown out everything else. That’s when I can really write. There are some books where I listen to rock. Some books where I listen to Selena Gomez. There are books where I listen to Evanescence.

The table-chair ratio also matters. When it’s too high, you get achy, when it’s too low, you’re hunched. I think Starbucks has the best chair to table ratio. I think writers and coffee shops are synonymous. Before, I used to go to Starbucks, but my mom’s now made a little nook for me to try out (laughs).

RR: Is a literature degree needed to be a writer?

KE: You can be a dentist or a lawyer, but you can still be a writer. A Literature degree does not guarantee that you will be a writer. Literature teaches how to critique, how to read a book properly and see the meaning of the author. But it doesn’t really teach you to write a first chapter or a first line.

The  best thing that literature can teach you that helps with writing is reading. That’s what it  teaches you. A lot of writers say that to be a writer you need to read, and I think that there are very few writers who don’t read voraciously because it really teaches you pacing, storytelling, dialogue. There are a lot of things in books that they don’t teach in classrooms. The best writers are not necessarily Literature degree holders or Creative degree holders. I don’t think Austen or the Bronte sisters had a degree.

RR: What advice would you give to young writers looking to get published?

KE: Prepare for the wait. The advice they would give me when I was starting out was prepare for the rejection. For me, the hardest part is the wait. When you give your story to your critique partners, you have to wait until they give it back to you. When you are submitting query letters to publishers and agents, you have to wait. I still got a rejection letter for “Taste” from two years ago. Imagine if that was the only agent I queried! I’d have waited for two years to get rejected!

When you get your agent, you have to wait again! Swerte na kung ma-email ako ng agent ko once a month. (I’m lucky if I get an email from my agent at least once a month.) And when he was submitting to editors, we had to wait again. Six months of waiting and not knowing. Submitting to publishers is another wait. From editing to release is a long wait. That’s what breaks people, because they start feeling like their career is not moving forward. They’re forced to wait. You can’t do anything but wait.

 

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