Four Debut Authors on Finding Inspiration, Writing, and Their Publishing Journeys

A collage of the covers included in this article

Debut novels are a fantastic way for readers to discover a new author at the very start of their career. Plus, there’s something exciting about knowing that a book is the culmination of years of big dreams and hard work. 2023 is packed with incredible debuts, and here I’ve asked four authors with upcoming releases to share their publishing journeys, the inspiration behind their books, and what debut novels they’re picking up.

Julia Seales, author of A Most Agreeable Murder

Dubbed a comedy of manners and murder, Julia SealesA Most Agreeable Murder whisks readers off to an autumn ball where Beatrice Steele is attempting to uncover who killed the party’s most eligible bachelor.

 

What has your publishing journey been like? 

I’ve dreamed of seeing my book on a shelf since I was a kid! A Most Agreeable Murder was different from any other manuscript or project I had written before because instead of writing based on trends or what I thought I “should” be writing, I was writing first and foremost for myself. I drafted the manuscript during the pandemic at a time when I wanted to feel comfort. Jane Austen and Agatha Christie are two authors I have long admired, and I wanted to combine their worlds with a dose of humor. I worked with my agent to revise the manuscript, and then we found the perfect home at Random House. Both my agent and editor took it to the next level with their own wit and passion. It was always a pleasure to write and edit this book because I felt such love for the material. 

As an author, what’s the most helpful advice you’ve ever received?

Stephen King‘s On Writing is chock full of great advice. One quote in particular I love is to “write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”

What was the inspiration for A Most Agreeable Murder?

I am obviously a huge Jane Austen fan, as well as a huge murder mystery fan (I adore Agatha Christie). I wanted to combine these worlds in a loving pastiche of both genres. The Princess Bride is one of my favorite books (my dog is named Buttercup), so I was also very inspired by William Goldman’s humor mixed with genre.

In addition to being a novelist, you’re also a screenwriter! Is there anything surprising you’ve learned as a screenwriter that’s helped you in crafting a novel?

You don’t have much space in a screenplay, so I learned how to “kill my darlings.”

If readers want to purchase your book, is there a particular indie bookstore you hope they’ll consider?

In Los Angeles, we have SO many wonderful indie bookstores—from The Ripped Bodice to Skylight Books to Vroman’s, you can’t go wrong! But of course, I will always be partial to my hometown bookstore, Joseph-Beth in Lexington, Kentucky.

What 2023 debut novels are you most excited about?

I am so excited to read Do Tell by Lindsay Lynch (out July 11) about gossip in the golden age of Hollywood and Charlotte Illes Is Not a Detective by Katie Siegel (June 27) about a former kid detective. Currently, I’m reading The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff!

Dominic Lim, author of All the Right Notes

Fans of music and romance won’t want to miss Dominic Lim’s All the Right Notes, featuring a Broadway-aspiring composer and a Hollywood celebrity who reunite for a charity performance in their hometown.

 

What has your publishing journey been like?

I’ve been extremely lucky in my journey towards publication. I have a background in music and theater, not writing, but when I started taking writing classes ten years ago I was really encouraged by my teachers at UC Berkeley and the Writers Grotto. They helped me to get my short stories published, get connected with other emerging writers, participate in readings and writing groups, and to start drafting All the Right Notes. I was so well supported that when it came time to query agents, I wasn’t afraid at all to get my manuscript out there! Maybe that confidence came through because, out of the eleven agents I queried, eight of them asked for my manuscript and four gave me offers of representation. I was blessed to have one of those offers come from the incredible Gina Panettieri of Talcott Notch, who helped me land a two-book pre-empt deal from Forever. Alex, my incomparable editor, and Estelle Hallick and Dana Cuadrado, Forever’s marketing and publicity geniuses, have all been so amazing to work with. I couldn’t have asked for a better team of people who believe in me and are helping to get my book into the hands of people who haven’t yet seen this kind of love story.

As an author, what’s the most helpful advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t quit your day job? But seriously, the best advice I’ve ever gotten was from Debbie, my best friend of 35 years. When I told her I was thinking of becoming a writer after years of pursuing music and theater, she said, “Do it, but don’t expect to make any money from it. Do it because you love it.” I’ve kept those words to heart ever since. Getting a publishing deal and an advance is fantastic, of course. But nothing can compare to the feeling I get when I’ve written something I’m really proud of. That’s what truly sustains me.  

What was the inspiration for All the Right Notes?

I went through a period in my life when I lost my passion for the arts and was struggling to find my way in life creatively, so that feeling of being lost found its way into the main character of Quito. The only difference is, I found my inspiration in writing and he finds it in his long-lost high school buddy, Emmett! Many of the locales and characters are based on places or people I know well and some of the situations are inspired by experiences I had working as a musician and actor in New York City and San Francisco.

As for why I wrote this particular book, I wanted to write an MM love story that was filled with joy instead of the all-too-common themes of trauma or abuse. It was important for me to show a cast of BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ people going about their lives, surrounded by music and food and family, whose main concerns have nothing to do with being afraid for their safety but with universal relationship woes that most everyone can relate to, regardless of their background or identity.

Your book has an accompanying song! Can you tell us about your collaboration with composer Martin McGinn to create “A Part I Play” from All the Right Notes?

As I was writing, “A Part I Play” kept becoming more and more important to the story, so I knew I needed to actually be able to hear the song. I asked my pianist and composer friend, Marty (who performs under the artist name Art Elliot), to try composing some music to the lyrics. After just a few days he sent me a recording of the music he wrote. We went back a few times to alter lyrics or change a measure here or there, but it was basically done in about a month. This was during the pandemic, so after we finalized the form of it, he recorded the accompaniment in his apartment and I recorded my solo vocal in my closet! He added some background vocals that I scored and a track provided by a drummer friend of his and then created a lyric video to go with the music, which I then uploaded to YouTube. Now it’s there for any reader who’s curious to know how the song goes!

If readers want to preorder your book, is there a particular indie bookstore you hope they’ll consider?

A Great Good Place for Books in the Montclair Village neighborhood of Oakland is this tiny, awesome bookstore that still manages to stock all the books I’m looking for. I also love The Booksmith on Haight St. in San Francisco. They partner with the reading series that I co-host in SF called Babylon Salon, and they’re also partnering with me for my book launch event in June. 

What 2023 debut novels are you most excited about?

Rita Chang-Eppig’s Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea is going to be an enormous hit. Her writing is mind-bogglingly gorgeous. And who doesn’t want to read about a Chinese pirate queen? I also love Edward Underhill’s Always the Almost, a YA romance about a trans pianist trying to win back his ex-boyfriend. It’s so sweet and joyful and the way Edward writes about music gives me goosebumps. And then there’s Sidney Karger’s Best Men. Like All the Right Notes, it’s a queer adult contemporary rom-com. It’s also one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. I was reading it in bed and my husband made me move to the living room because I kept laughing and waking him up!

Gabi Burton, author of Sing Me to Sleep

One of our must-read YA books of 2023, Gabi Burton’s Sing Me to Sleep follows Saoirse Sorkova, a siren who joins a prince to hunt down an assassin. What the prince doesn’t realize is that Saorise is the assassin he’s looking for.

 

What has your publishing journey been like?

A lot of publishing comes down to good timing and a whole lot of luck. I’ve wanted to be a published author since I was a kid so at the start of my publishing journey, I didn’t really see myself represented on bookshelves. I loved to write but I didn’t realize I was allowed to write for or about people who looked like me. The first book I tried to get published was a YA mystery with five points of view—all of them were white. I queried that book on and off and rewrote it more times than I can count for years before I finally realized the reason the story always felt off was because none of the points of view reflected my own experiences. As time passed and I started to see more Black books on shelves, I rewrote it a final time, this time with Black characters. This last rewrite did much better with literary agents but the book no longer felt like the story I wanted to tell. I had written the book with Black characters but honestly, it still didn’t feel like it was for Black people. 

I stopped actively querying that book and started writing Sing Me to Sleep. This time, the timing was perfect. There were more Black books on the market and I felt confident enough to write a book with Black readers in mind. It made all the difference. I had more fun writing it and I think it better captured me as an author. I wrote, revised, and edited it in three months, and two days after I started querying, I got an offer of representation for my first book. To this day, the timing blows my mind. Still, at that point, I loved Sing Me to Sleep and it had become the book of my heart so I didn’t accept this offer. A month later, I had an offer of representation for Sing Me to Sleep. I received more offers and signed with my current literary agent. We received an offer of publication from Bloomsbury in two weeks. For that first book, it was the wrong book and the wrong time. For Sing Me to Sleep, I was lucky enough to have the right book at the right time. 

What was the inspiration for Sing Me to Sleep?
I wrote Sing Me to Sleep for childhood me: a Black girl who loved swimming but was too self-conscious about her natural hair. A Black girl who didn’t know how to feel beautiful or confident in her own skin. I wanted to write a character who inherited my love of water but not my insecurities. That was the inspiration for Saoirse’s character and I built the story and the world around her.

In addition to being a writer, you’ve been a mentor for Pitch Wars and Diverse Voices. What is your go-to advice for mentees? Do you find that mentoring also strengthens your own writing?

My go-to advice that I tell my mentees over and over is to trust themselves and take all my edit suggestions with lots of salt. With writing, feelings of self-doubt and imposter syndrome are all too natural. Constructive feedback is important, but knowing when to edit something is just as important as knowing when not to edit something. Writing is subjective and I’m just one person. If I point out an issue or suggest a change, that doesn’t mean my opinion is objectively correct. I think it’s really important that my mentees (and all writers) know they never have to listen to my advice. At the end of the day, this is their book and their story and they know it better than I do. If advice they hear—either from me, or someone else—conflicts with their vision for the story, I want them to say no.

Mentoring definitely helps with my own writing. I learn so much from my mentees. Knowing how to identify strengths and weaknesses in a mentee’s writing is really useful for doing so in my own. I’ve also been blessed with super-talented mentees with their own writing strategies that I’ve borrowed. For example, one of my mentees has a really detailed color-coding system that I now use religiously.

As an author, what’s the most helpful advice you’ve ever received?
First drafts are allowed to be terrible! I tell myself this all the time, but I still struggle to take it to heart.

If readers want to preorder your book, is there a particular indie bookstore you hope they’ll consider?
Heartleaf Books in Providence, Rhode Island! They are the sweetest people and have the cutest cat.

What 2023 debut novels are you most excited about?

I’m really excited to read That Self-Same Metal by Brittany N. Williams and Forged by Blood by Ehigbor Okosun. I’m lucky enough to already have an ARC of If Tomorrow Doesn’t Come by Jen St. Jude and I can’t wait for the rest of the world to read and sob with me when it comes out.

Terah Shelton Harris, author of One Summer in Savannah

Terah Shelton HarrisOne Summer in Savannah is an emotional exploration of family and forgiveness through the lens of a single mother raising her daughter while reckoning with the trauma of her past.

 

What has your publishing journey been like?

I love this question because it gives me an opportunity to tell my unique story. I finished writing One Summer in Savannah at the end of 2020 and started pitching it at the start of 2021. I got off to an amazing start with some of the most beautiful rejections you can imagine: “With your language/voice and the characterization—you could go toe to toe with any published author.” And: “Terah, I have no doubt you will be published someday.” My favorite: “I have spent the past couple of weeks reading it closely and thinking deeply about it. As a matter of fact, part of the reason it’s taken me so long to respond is that I’ve been pondering it closely. And I hate writing this email, as there is so much to love in your writing—you are hugely talented!”

By the end of 2021, I was growing leery if I would ever find an agent. One Summer in Savannah is not the first book I wrote, and I began to think that it would live on my hard drive until Erin McClary, my editor at Sourcebooks, responded to my query and first 50 pages, asking for the full manuscript. It was a miracle that I was able to query her at all. At the time, Erin’s submissions were open to unagented BIPOC writers and I took advantage. After a few weeks, Erin sent me the best news of my life. But I didn’t have an agent! I spent the next few weeks interviewing agents and bonded with Abby Saul immediately. I could have never imagined that I would have a book deal before signing with an agent. One thing that I’ve learned is that everyone’s path to publishing is different. And that’s okay!

As an author, what’s the most helpful advice you’ve ever received?

Develop your own process. As writers, we’ve read all of the books and articles instructing us on the dos and don’ts of writing. But the best writing advice I’ve ever received (and what I currently subscribe to) is that there are no rules. Yes, we are bombarded with what I call the never-ever rules. For example, never-ever edit as you write. But what if editing as you write works for you? It does for me and when I tried to adhere to this never-ever rule, I quickly discovered that it did not work for me. That’s when I decided to create my own process and not try to make myself fit someone else’s.

In addition to being a writer, you’ve worked as a librarian for over 15 years. Is there anything you’ve learned working in a library that impacted your writing or path to becoming an author?

Libraries curated my love for writing. I grew up in libraries, honed my writing in libraries, and read my first books checked out from libraries. For me, there’s no greater satisfaction than providing my patrons with stories that will move them, inspire them, and challenge them. That’s what I wanted to accomplish with One Summer in Savannah. Writing isn’t supposed to be comfortable or easy, and neither is reading. Rather than running from what makes us uncomfortable, we can take risks, challenge ourselves, and step outside of our lived experiences and our comfort zones so that we may grow as a person. One Summer in Savannah is such a story.

What was the inspiration for One Summer in Savannah?

Inspiration for One Summer in Savannah stems from the 2015 Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. After the parishioners fed him and prayed for him, a man shot and killed nine of them. Days after that terrible tragedy, before they had even buried their loved ones, some of the survivors and relatives of those killed walked into a South Carolina courtroom and forgave the shooter. At that moment, I realized I knew nothing about forgiveness. I assumed that there were crimes and acts that were unforgivable, but I learned the opposite. The loved ones who forgave him taught me to look inward, and I learned that forgiveness is not one-size-fits-all. I decided to explore that by writing a book that challenged readers on the definition of forgiveness and what it truly means to forgive.

I also gleaned inspiration from the Saras of the world. One Summer in Savannah is a work of fiction, but portions of Sara’s story are real. There’s a person who lives Sara’s story who conceived a child through sexual assault and practices the act of forgiveness every day. Her story and the millions of other Saras in this world shine a light on an even darker side of sexual assault that no one ever talks about.

If readers want to preorder your book, is there a particular indie bookstore you hope they’ll consider?

Yes, my local indie bookstore, Downtown Books! I live in a small town in Alabama and to have an indie bookstore is such a blessing. Downtown Books has been such a nice addition to my town and any support would be much appreciated.

What 2023 debut novels are you most excited about?

I’ve read so many that I love! Jason Powell’s thriller No Man’s Ghost impeccably balances the contrast between good and evil and those who live for others and those who live for themselves. Regina Black’s seductive contemporary romance The Art of Scandal sizzles with a May-December romance, crackling tension, and steamy scenes that will have you turning the pages. And Quinn Connor’s Cicadas Sing of Summer Graves promises to be a delight with a touch of magical realism, horror, and suspense.

Kelly Gallucci

Kelly Gallucci is the Executive Editor of We Are Bookish, where she oversees the editorial content, offers book recommendations, and interviews authors and NetGalley members. When she's not working, Kelly can be found color coordinating her bookshelves, eating Chipotle, and watching way too many baking shows.

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