Tanya Guerrero’s debut kids’ book The Wild Side is coming out in early 2020, and as a Philippine-based author, she graciously shared her experiences with publishing and getting an agent, as well as advice for other Asia-based writers on starting a writing career.
From Publishers Weekly:
The Wild Side [is] inspired by the author’s multicultural background (Filipino and Spanish). The contemporary story follows a 12-year-old boy named Pablo whose anxiety issues are exacerbated both by his mother’s decision to move with him to the Philippines, where she works as a zoologist, and to take in a foster child with an as-of-yet-unrepaired craniofacial anomaly.
Can you tell us about your writing background? What age did you start writing and who were your influences? Any books that had a particular impact on your decision to become a writer?
For me writing was always just a hobby. When I was a kid, I would write short stories more like snippets really, often to accompany some sort of drawing I’d done. Later on as a teenager and into young adulthood, writing was more often than not strictly homework assignments. To be honest I never had aspirations of becoming an author. I never even knew it was possible, just the idea of it seemed like a sparkly unicorn galloping on a rainbow—something not real, not something I would ever see or experience. I was more of a reader. Even as a young child I read widely, everything from children’s books such as A WRINKLE IN TIME to classics such as THE PEARL, to series such as THE CLAN OF THE CAVEBEAR.
It wasn’t until my thirties that the idea of becoming an author crept into my head. I guess you could say it was sort of an early mid-life crisis? What the hell am I doing with my life? What did I REALLY want to do? I loved to read, that much I knew. And I also knew I could write, at least that’s what my teachers always told me. Why couldn’t I write a book? Or at least try? So that’s what I did. I wrote one book, a YA fantasy, and stupidly I went on to query it without much revision. Of course I got loads of rejections—too many to count. But I was pretty hardheaded. After that first failed attempt, I shelved that manuscript and started another one, a YA contemporary. I knew deep down that this second book was way better. I knew I had a better chance with it. I entered the querying trenches again, sending my manuscript off in batches of 8-10, in total probably 60 or so agents. After some months of rejections, partial and full requests, I got an offer of representation from an agent I was eager to work with, one with mostly children’s book author clients. It was official—I was finally an aspiring author with an agent.
Looking back, there weren’t really any books in particular that influenced my writing, or my wanting to become an author. But all my life I’ve gravitated towards children’s books, particularly middle-grade and young adult titles. There was always something magical about stories for young minds and how those stories could potentially shape how they viewed the world. As an adult reader I often read 2-3 children’s book titles, then read 1-2 adult titles, then back again to children’s titles. I guess it feels balanced to me, especially since I have a child of my own now.
What were/are your biggest challenges as a writer?
Ah, there are so many challenges! I guess the biggest would be developing patience and a thick skin. All stages of traditional publishing take forever, so learning to be patient is just part of it. Also there are loads of rejections, both in the querying stage and the submissions stage. Even experienced, big name authors still experience rejection. It’s important not to take the rejection personally, to brush them off and move on. Other challenges include finding time to write, especially with a small child, deciding what to write since I always have too many ideas floating around in my head, and narrowing down the voice of each particular story.
Not many authors in Asia get representation and deals with UK/US-based agents and publishers. Do you have any thoughts on this and perhaps advice to aspiring writers?
Personally, I feel that the biggest obstacle for most aspiring Asian authors isn’t the demand of the market itself, but rather the mindset of not feeling worthy, or that striving for a career outside their respective countries is an impossible dream. Also as I mentioned before, there is a lot of rejection involved and sometimes I feel that Filipinos, and perhaps other Asian cultures are not thick skinned enough. After one or two rejections, they throw in the towel and give up. The entire process involves tons of research, work, patience and persistence, and even with all of that, there aren’t any guarantees that you’ll make it.
My advice to aspiring authors in Asia would be to first hone your craft. Write and write and write. Find critique partners and beta readers who will help fine-tune your work. Once you’re ready, do your research. I cannot stress the importance of researching agents, which ones are legit, and which ones represent work like yours. Also learn how to write query letters, because no agent will take a look at your manuscript without a kick-ass query letter.
The other piece of advice I’d like to give is to stay true to your identity and culture, but to always keep in mind that most agents and editors are based in the US or UK. There are ways of writing stories based on your own culture, which will appeal to US/UK readers. It is complicated and challenging, but the best way to learn how to do this is to read what other non-US and non-UK based authors have done. More often than not it involves subtle nuances in writing, and how foreign words and concepts can be made more palatable to those readers.
For me most of my learning came from reading voraciously and reading widely.
We understand that you have an image-heavy writing process and use Pinterest for your stories. Would you mind sharing one of your boards and walking us through the images?
I do tend to be image-heavy when conceptualizing a new story. A lot of that has to do with the fact that I was a film major in college, and that I also had a long career as a photo researcher and photo editor before pursuing my writing. I often visualize the stories as films in my head, especially crucial scenes like the opening and closing chapters. The Pinterest boards I create help with the entire visualization process, especially since I can add more images along the way.
This board is one I created for my middle-grade debut THE WILD SIDE.
For each story I write, I always create images for the main and secondary characters. Besides that, I also view the settings as characters themselves; I tend to visualize the overall scene and then add details such as specific objects or animals that are featured. For THE WILD SIDE, I wanted to show the Philippines of my childhood—a Philippines that was less crowded, less modern, simpler. To do that, I had to set it outside of Manila, loosely in the areas surrounding Makiling (Laguna), though there is also some traveling involved, so places like Tagaytay and Baler are also included.
In my Pinterest board you’ll see images of Narra flower covered streets, wet markets, dirty ice cream carts, palm leaf balls, a walis tingting, even stuff that grosses me out like Adidas (chicken feet on a stick). Those images come from my own memories, and I wanted to make sure that they were prominently featured in my story—which ultimately I think is quite Filipino in its setting and its humor despite the fact that my main character is Spanish-American.
Also a big part of my board is what is going on inside Pablo, my main character’s head. Because of his parent’s separation and his move to the Philippines he has a lot of anxiety—particularly with germs, dirt, patterns, numbers, lines and anything outside his comfort zone. Those things are a huge part of him, so they are displayed quite prominently.
Each and every Pinterest board I create is always a balance of external and internal imagery, which I feel is crucial in middle-grade and young adult storytelling.
Aside from Pinterest, how do you build your stories? What’s your writing process like?
I REALLY envy authors who have an organized process. Like the kind with charts and outlines and excel sheets. But that’s not me. I guess I’m more of an intuitive writer. I get this light bulb moment for each story, and then slowly the scenes reveal themselves to me when I’m doing the most mundane of things, like taking a shower, driving, cooking, sitting on the toilet. When I’ve got more of less an idea of the main character and how the story begins and ends, I just sit down at my desk and start writing. I have no outline, so I just type away with whatever appears in my head. Since I’m a bit of a perfectionist, I tend to write one chapter, then re-read and edit that chapter before I move on to the next. So my drafts usually take a bit longer, but the bonus is that they also tend to be cleaner. For THE WILD SIDE, I sent the manuscript to my agent right after finishing it with only one re-read. The manuscript took me about four months to finish. After that my agent only had a couple of minor tweaks before we sent it off to submissions.