Back in 2014 and 2015, when I was living in Minneapolis, I created a small writers group. Monica Gomez-Hira was in the group, and she was working on a funny YA contemporary about a Latinx girl who gets a job as a party princess and has to play Belle opposite her “beastly” ex-boyfriend.
Imagine my delight when, years later, I found out that Monica had been selected as a mentee in the highly-coveted Pitch Wars program (with amazing YA author Rachel Lynn Solomon as her mentor). And then imagine my insane glee when I found out Monica’s novel, Once Upon a Quinceañera, was going to be published in March 2021 by Harper Teen.
The same novel that was once just a messy draft being discussed at a Minneapolis coffee shop is now a real live book soon to hit shelves. It’s been a whirlwind of emotions. For me. Just imagine how Monica feels.
Thanks to a botched final project, Carmen needs to secure a final academic credit with a do-over in the form of an internship with Dreams Come True, a party princess company. But when her estranged Tía Celia hires Dreams Come True to perform at her cousin Ariana’s quinceañera, and her boss assigns her ex-boyfriend Mauro to be her dance partner, Carmen has to confront her past mistakes—and the memory of her own canceled quinceañera—to get a storybook ending. Debut author Monica Gomez-Hira’s writing delights, handling the romantic tension between Carmen and Mauro, as well as the strained, aptly layered family dynamics and Miami setting, with fun and flair. Fans of Jane the Virgin will have a ball.
And what does Monica have to say? Read on to find my interview with the author herself.
When did you first start writing Once Upon a Quinceañera? Can you talk about the process of writing it?
I started writing Quinceañera towards the end of 2015. Like a lot of writers, I’ve been writing off and on for years, and had already written a couple of full manuscripts and lots of pieces of other things. But I’d never really worked on something consistently and revised until this book. It felt different to me somehow—I didn’t want to give up on it. I loved my characters so much that even when I got to parts of the process where I was totally confused and ready to move on to another project, I couldn’t. Their voices were so loud for me. So I committed to finishing it.
I wrote about 2 full drafts with the writing group, then I went through 2 revisions with my Pitch Wars mentor before I signed with my agent.
Can you tell me more about being a 2018 Pitch Wars mentee?
It was one of the best experiences of my life! I learned so much about writing and especially editing from my mentor, Rachel Lynn Solomon. Before Pitch Wars, I had a really hard time seeing other story possibilities once I had committed to one on the page. So a lot of my edits back then were more like…advanced tweaks! But Rachel showed me how to make really dramatic changes (I cut over 20,000 words while working with her, for example.) The whole community is really supportive of each other. We celebrate each other’s successes and help commiserate with difficulties. They are the kind of writing community that every writer should have!
I had started querying the novel a couple of months before I applied to Pitch Wars, and while I was getting some requests from agents, I was definitely hitting a wall. There was something missing, and that something was the editorial help I got from Pitch Wars.
During the Pitch Wars agent showcase, you got a lot of manuscript requests. Did you get multiple offers for representation? If so, how did you decide on your agent?
I was very lucky during the agent showcase—agents were excited about my materials. I’d been so afraid that no one at all would request at that stage, so I was happily surprised. I did get multiple offers for representation, which was super exciting and also deeply nerve wracking, because I was terrified of making the wrong decision. I had calls with each of the agents who were interested, and honestly, they were all great! Afterwards, I had the chance to speak to a couple of the current clients for each agent, and that was also hugely helpful. But in the end, you can only have one agent, and I picked the one that I felt most connected to after our phone call.
Tell us about working with your agent.
Working with Jim [McCarthy] has been a dream! He’s eternally patient, supportive, and an absolutely brilliant editor. He always knows exactly what to say to make me feel better and calmer…about absolutely everything! I’m so grateful to have the chance to work with him, because I feel like I’m learning so much. And he always responds to questions and queries so promptly, it feels like I am a priority, and I know all of his other clients agree with me. I always call him a magic person, and well…he is!
As far as how we work together—after he finished rereading the full draft of Quinceañera, he sent me an editorial memo outlining his ideas for our revision (some of which were fairly extensive.) After I’d finished revising according to his notes, we were ready to start submitting to editors. That was scary for me, but again, Jim really helped keep me sane through the whole process.
Where were you when you found out that Harper Teen wanted to acquire your book? What was it like working with a major publishing house?
I was actually visiting family when I got The Call, and I was thrilled! Once we got to that point, things moved very quickly—the book went to auction, and well, here we are! It was honestly better than my wildest hopes.
Working with a major publishing house from this side of things has been fascinating—I thought I knew a lot about publishing because when I graduated from college, I worked in the industry. I started out in the publicity department at Simon & Schuster then moved to the editorial department at S&S and later on at Random House. But, as it turns out, I felt like just as much of a newbie as any other debut novelist!
I am so grateful for the support I’ve gotten from HarperTeen through everything. They’ve been so meticulous with every step—from my cover to the audiobook to the copyediting. I think what surprised me most about the process is just how many people are involved and invested in your work. It’s still hard for me to think about my book as something that so many people have read after it has lived in my brain for so long. It’s a real thing, and that’s still hard to wrap my mind around!
So you worked in New York at major publishing houses. And then, later on, you worked as a Children’s Lead at Barnes & Noble. How did these experiences influence your writing?
Working in the industry really helped shape the way that I approached the industry. In certain ways, it helped me take rejection less personally. It always hurts to be rejected, but since I’d been on the other side of it, I also knew how often authors are rejected for all sorts of reasons besides the quality of the work. So it helped me to keep going.
And working as the Children’s Lead at B&N was an education! I did so much reading while I worked there, and saw first hand the kinds of things that readers were interested in. It strengthened my desire to write my own book, because there’s nothing like the joy on someone’s face when they come back to tell you how much they loved a book. I know that feeling, I love that feeling, and my fondest hope is to be able to give that feeling to other people.
Your book is about an over-the-top quinceañera party, so I have to ask: what are your own quinceanera experiences? Did you have one?
I must confess—I’ve never had a quinceañera! When I turned fifteen, my parents asked me if I wanted one, and I decided against it. I kind of regret it now! And my daughter turned fifteen during COVID, so any plans we might have had for her didn’t work out, obviously.
I have, however, attended a few extravagant quinceañeras, which definitely planted a seed in my mind. One memorable party had a smoke screen and a huge flower which was rolled into the middle of the dance floor. Then the flower slowly opened, and the quinceañera emerged in all of her glory!
Has your teenage daughter read Once Upon a Quinceañera? What was it like writing a teen protagonist while being the mom of a teen?
This is SUCH a good question, because her becoming a teen has definitely changed my writing. I feel like I’m not just channeling my own teenage voice now, but also to a certain extent hers. It’s a very different feeling from when I started the book when she was ten. I have to be careful to move back into a teenage headspace when I write now, instead of defaulting to a “mom” place, where I want my characters to make good, responsible decisions, study for all of their exams, and go to bed by eleven!
My daughter is actually reading the book now, and so far she says she’s enjoying it. She approves of the love interest, which is really all I can ask. 🙂
Are you working on anything now? If so, what can you tell us about it?
I sold Quinceañera as part of a two book deal, so I am working on the second book right now. There isn’t really enough to talk about yet, but I can share that it’s been a very different experience from writing the first book. I’ve been working on the same book for so long that it’s been difficult to switch back to a pure drafting mode. It’s almost like I’ve forgotten what books are! 🙂
What advice do you have for writers who dream of having a publishing novel?
I think the main advice I have for writers is to put themselves out into the larger writing world and find their people. Writing can feel very isolating, and just having other people in your life who understand the process helps a great deal. I had a very hard time trusting other people enough to let them read my work, but when I finally did (thanks to the group that you created, Eva!) it made all of the difference. The writing group helped keep me accountable even when I wanted to give up.
And of course, I have to recommend online contests. I had an amazing experience with Pitch Wars, but there are a lot of different events like PitMad, DVPit, AMM (Author Mentor Match), etc. It’s such a great way to build confidence and prepare your work for querying.
Lastly, learn to sit with discomfort. I’m still working on this one, but it’s so important. No matter how carefully you plot and outline, you will reach points in your writing where you don’t know what you are doing. And at these moments, that’s when you have to find a way to move through. This is when your writing community can be invaluable, because when you see that it happens to everyone, it starts to feel like a natural part of writing, instead of something that is happening only to you because you aren’t good enough. Plus, your writing community can help get you out of your own head so that you can brainstorm new ideas and solutions.
Ultimately…everyone is just learning all of the time. That’s what writing is. And the sooner that you get comfortable with that, the more fun you’ll have with everything!
Wise words from a newly-published author. I do hope that you’ll support Monica — she has worked so hard to get to where she is. Her debut novel, Once Upon a Quinceañera is available for pre-order and will hit the shelves on March 2, 2021. And right now the Kindle pre-order is only $9.99!