Hi everyone! This week, I interviewed Elizabeth Unseth, a YA writer who recently signed with Sarah Landis of Sterling Lord Literistic! Elizabeth talked with me about pitching, vampires, her revision process, and what inspires her. Read on below!
Hi, Elizabeth! Can you tell me about the book that got you your agent?
EU: Yes! The book is currently called RADELIVA, and it’s a YA gothic. Valeria Willoughby is a Victorian debutante with questionable sanity. She goes to stay with a childhood friend at his manor, where she expects to find romance. When she investigates murdered houseguests and a monster that wants her blood, she ends up with a heartbreaking choice.
It deals with a lot of themes that I have often struggled with like the nature of reality or who defines reality in a given situation. It also deals with anxiety, fear of death, and personal agency. It’s a nod to the Gothic fiction and films and 19th century British lit, which are some of my favorite things.
Can you tell me a bit about your querying journey? For example, was the project that got you your agent the first book you queried?
EU: My querying journey is probably a bit odd. I’d wanted to be published ever since I could remember, and after I quit college in 2013, I went through a pretty dark period where I thought I had lost my ability to write and had no idea what to do with my life.
I started writing a co-authored project with a friend around that time, which was fantastic. It reminded me I could functionally plan and write a novel.
Then I read Stephen King’s ON WRITING, and something clicked in my brain and told me I needed to treat writing like a job instead of a hobby. I wanted to write something on my own again, and I had never been able to let go of this story idea based on a dream I had had when I was about fifteen. RADELIVA was drafted between 2015/2016. Then I revised it bit by bit over the next couple years and wrote the sequel during NaNoWriMo 2018.
I sent out my first ten queries in July, 2019 and while those were out, I worked on the second book, revisions, etc. I also let a few new ideas percolate. I got polite rejections mixed with radio silence, which I expected based on what I had read about the process. Then I took a LitReactor class on the first ten pages and queries with Lauren Spieller. My classmates and Lauren helped improve those pages significantly. Also, having an industry professional say nice things about my writing for the first time in my life was encouraging.
I knew PitMad was coming up in September, while I was planning to be in France with no computer, so I prepped a pitch ahead of time, got a time zone clock app, and posted the pitch the requisite three times that day. I was so excited when Erin A. Craig commented on a pitch, and her agent – who was on the list of agents I wanted to query – liked it. I was in the gardens of Chateau Villandry almost crying to my sister and friends because I couldn’t fathom these people being interested in my work.
The minute I got back to the states, I queried the agents who had shown interest, but I had this strange feeling that Sarah was going to be my agent. She got back to me first thing the next morning with a full request. We had The Call a few days later, and I was blown away by her enthusiasm and kindness. By the end of the next week, I had signed with her.
Was there a time in your querying journey when you felt like giving up? How did you get the strength to keep trying?
EU: I feel fortunate because I was not in the trenches long enough to experience too much of that. I did panic a few times during those months. I picked an idea and started researching a completely different book idea just in case, but I put myself through most of the emotional agony prior to querying.
I would second-guess myself every time I considered querying. With RADELIVA, I started googling things like, “how do I know my novel is ready to query?” My anxiety told me agents were waiting to hit delete at any mistake. By the way, I realized after PitMad that my tweet had a pretty significant typo, so I’m here to tell you you’re allowed to mess up.
Anyway, during this lovely period of anxiety, V.E. Schwab did an AMA where someone asked what to do with a finished manuscript, and her list of what needed to happen prior to querying was everything I had done. That was the final jolt I needed.
I also had friends pushing me forward. My dear friend and critique partner, Elizabeth, had to text me through pressing send on the first email.
Do you have any advice for querying authors?
EU: Read everything you can about the industry, word counts for your genre, and etiquette. I mentioned QueryShark, and I think it’s one of the most valuable resources for an author with no knowledge of how any of this works. Also if you can make it work financially, and if it’s available, the LitReactor first ten pages class is brilliant. I’m not sure how often they do it, but I’m fairly sure Sarah would not have requested a full if I hadn’t taken that class. PubCrawl and Print Run are two podcasts full of helpful information. Oh and MSWL when you’re agent-hunting.
When and why did you start writing?
EU: My mother would read to us before we could read ourselves, and I was reading constantly by a young age. That turned into writing eventually. I was telling stories and writing them down as soon as I knew how. I had those four years during college and right after I quit college where I could hardly write, but other than that, it’s always been a necessary part of me.
The reason I write YA specifically has to do with how college’s overload of assigned reading nearly killed my interest in reading. I could hardly focus on the page in front of me, and when I could read, I was stuck in that college mode where you cram information and enjoy nothing. Then I discovered YA, and I couldn’t get enough. I found characters that made me feel seen and helped me escape from the pain I was dealing with. I had assumed there was something wrong with me for so long, but in YA, I was reading about depression, anxiety, grief, hope, and love in a context that felt more familiar than a lot of adult fiction. I was seeing creative retellings of my favorite stories and new takes on old themes. And if YA meant so much to me, I could only imagine what it did for teens.
What inspires you?
EU: So many things. Nature, travel, ruined castles, history, folklore, books, movies, music, real life. I could go on and on. Inspirations for RADELIVA include that dream, an old English house, DRACULA, GASLIGHT, and CRIMSON PEAK.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
EU: I’m a mix. I think it’s called a plantser? I’ve learned I’m most comfortable starting the novel with a basic concept, overall plot idea, and some characters. Then once I get a sense of the world and characters from writing some chapters, I can usually plan the rest of it out. If I get stuck, I write to where I’m stuck and keep writing from there without an outline until I have a sense of direction again.
If you read writing craft books, do you have any to recommend?
EU: I don’t read many craft books, but I do read lots of blog posts or articles. I mostly read all the novels because those teach me so much if I’m paying attention. I would say everyone should read ON WRITING by Stephen King. I wouldn’t have written RADELIVA without it. I probably wouldn’t have even been to the querying stage by now if I hadn’t read it.
Who would your dream co-author be?
EU: Oh gosh. I never can choose just one option. I think my top three right now would be Rosamund Hodge, Erin A. Craig, and Gail Carriger. And just for fun, if I could summon dead authors for collabs, I would want Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, or Wilkie Collins.
What’s a book you’ve read lately that you’re OBSESSED with?
EU: My two most recent obsessions are SERPENT & DOVE and THE BONE HOUSES. Also, I read them months ago, but I still can’t get THE NIGHT CIRCUS, CRUEL BEAUTY, SIX OF CROWS, or WICKED SAINTS out of my head. And WE HUNT THE FLAME and A GATHERING OF SHADOWS!
What’s your author dream? Fanart? Movie adaptation? Fanfic?
EU: Right now, the dream is to hold an actual copy of RADELIVA and to be able to write and publish all four of the books I have in my head for this series. Of course I’d melt if I saw cosplays and fanart someday. And who doesn’t want movie adaptations?
What’s the hardest part about being a writer?
EU: Right now, imposter syndrome. Also I found out that an edit letter is daunting. I found it helpful to set it aside for a few days and mull it over, write down any questions that came to mind during that time and go over those with my agent. I took notes during that conversation and incorporated them into a copy of the edit letter. Then I color-coded a stack of notecards by plot, character, etc. and pulled notes from the edit letter onto them – one editing note per card. I separated all those things into three categories based on much impact a note would have on the book’s overall structure. Because I have a hard time focusing and processing large amounts of information, letting myself see only one thing at a time is essential to productivity. I also finally mapped out the book’s structure in a way that made visual sense so I could pinpoint where the bigger changes needed to go and what impact they would have on the plot and character arcs. I did one note card at a time, jumping back and forth between easy and difficult edits depending on what I had time or capacity for on a given day. Watching the stack of finished edits grow gave a sense that I was getting somewhere.
What’s the best part?
EU: When you can write and don’t have to worry about anything else. I’m assuming that answer will eventually change to “holding a finished book.”
I saw that you’ve been writing a vampire book. How has that been going, especially in light of the general “aversion” to writing about vampires, these days?
EU: Ah yes, the dreaded vampire. Feared and loathed by all in the writing community.
I love vampires, not just as creatures, but for the symbolism they provide. While I was still toying with the idea of writing RADELIVA, I saw CRIMSON PEAK, and it made me wonder if gothic fiction and film was making a comeback.
I started writing RADELIVA with that in the back of my mind but without really much more consideration for what could sell. I did almost quit during original revisions because I kept seeing tweets about how nobody wanted vampire books. I hadn’t even realized vampires were over until I haunted writer twitter, but two things I’d learned from my publishing industry research are you have no control and things change constantly. So I figured even if vampires couldn’t sell at the moment, maybe they’d have a chance later. Plus, I hadn’t really seen newer vampire fiction do the specific thing I was doing, which gave me hope.
Something interesting happened where around last fall I started seeing requests for vampire novels pop up in MSWL, and THE BEAUTIFUL – which is still in my monstrous TBR stack – came out. Then the querying/pitch thing worked out, so I’m hoping the rest does too. Especially since I have ideas for a couple other standalone vampire books outside this series I’d like the chance to write.
Thank you so much for your time, Elizabeth!
About Elizabeth Unseth
Elizabeth grew up in the Midwest telling stories to her younger sister and wishing she was a pirate. As an adult, she gave up her dreams of piracy and chose the sensible options of flight attending and writing. When she isn’t being a hermit with her books and half-dead plants, she travels to far-off places where she pokes through ruins and forests. She is represented by Sarah Landis of Sterling Lord Literistic.