Sarah Smith is a copywriter-turned-author who wants to make the world a lovelier place, one kissing story at a time. Her love of romance began when she was eight years old and she discovered her auntie’s stash of romance novels. When she isn’t perfecting her lumpia recipe, Sarah is the host of the writing-focused “Quick and Dirty Romance Podcast.”
In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’re extremely delighted to share an interview with contemporary romance novelist Sarah Smith. Sarah is the author of the extremely delightful #OwnVoices rom-coms, Faker and Simmer Down (Berkley), which feature the sweet—and sexy!—romantic exploits of characters of Filipino descent. In this week’s Page Turner Magazine spotlight interview, Sarah was kind enough to chat with us about the need for multicultural romance novels, the unusual way she landed her literary agent, and how to handle manuscript rejections. —Maxine Shen
Setting aside the enormous popularity of romance novels—and the megabucks it generates—what drew you to the genre?
Honestly, the joy of it attracted me to the genre. I love how happy I feel whenever I read and write romance. The world and life can be so stressful, and reading and writing romance—where I know that there will be a happily ever after and the characters will get the good things that they deserve—is a happy escape I value so much.
Why write romance novels that feature multicultural protagonists?
I think it’s important to be able to see yourself in the media and the entertainment you consume. It goes a long way in shaping how you feel about yourself and your place in the world [and in] society. And being able to write characters of my particular background is especially satisfying because I feel like I’m showing people who look like me that we aren’t just diversity quotas or side characters. We can be the focus of a book, and we deserve a happily ever after, too.
Your novels Faker and Simmer Down are centered around characters of Filipino descent. Why write characters with this specific cultural background into your novels?
It’s important for me to write characters with my background, which is Filipino-Caucasian American, because that’s what my personal experience is. Growing up, I was an avid reader, and I never read a book with a character who shared my background. It was a bit of an isolating feeling, not seeing myself represented in the books/entertainment I was consuming. So when I started writing books, I set out to tell stories that were true to my experiences with the hope that readers with similar backgrounds would feel represented reading stories with characters who are like them.
I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from readers saying how happy they felt to find a romance/romcom book with a character who shared their same experience. That’s been a really rewarding part of this [process].
Was there a romance novelist or novel that inspired your desire to write within the genre?
Gemma Burgess wrote my favorite rom-com ever, A Girl Like You. It’s the perfect British contemporary rom-com and it’s what inspired me to write romance. And not only is she a brilliant writer, she’s such a lovely person too. She writes screenplays now and she is just so unapologetically feminist and fierce and kind, and I so look up to her. I just love how she writes the stories she wants to tell and isn’t interested in pandering to anyone. I want to be like that in my writing.
How have you been able to use social media to help you during your publishing journey?
I think social media is a great tool! It’s how I got my agent actually. I participated in #KissPitch, which is an event that happens on Valentine’s Day on Twitter (organized by @allthekissing) where authors pitch their romance manuscripts. I pitched Faker during that event. My eventual agent Sarah Younger at Nancy Yost Literary Agency “liked” my tweet, so I submitted my query letter and full manuscript to her. She liked it, and I signed with her a couple months later. [ed note: #KissPitch was rescheduled this year and is now taking place this week, on Thursday, May 6!]
“…when I started writing books, I set out to tell stories that were true to my experiences with hopes that readers with similar backgrounds would feel represented…”—Sarah Smith
Authors frequently talk about how long it took them to finally land an agent or a book deal. How were you able to keep your spirits up during the querying process and what advice do you have for aspiring writers who might be facing rejections…or worse, crickets?
I received so many rejections, just like so many other authors, haha. I lost track of how many rejections I received while querying (it was at least 30). I kept my spirits up by querying in batches—that way I wasn’t getting, like, 30 rejections all at once. So every few months I would send out a handful of queries, wait for responses, and then adjust my query letter and manuscript based on the feedback I received.
It was still a difficult and discouraging process, but if there was something I knew that I could fix to make my query and my book better, then I felt encouraged by that. I also took breaks. Sometimes I just didn’t feel like querying especially after getting a bunch of form rejections, so I’d take a few days to read or binge something on Netflix or go for a hike. Those things went a long way in helping me clear my head and dive back into the querying trenches with renewed energy.
The advice I would give is to query in batches—that way you can take any feedback you get from agents/editors and tweak your query letter or sample to improve it. Then when you query your next batch, you’ll have a stronger chance. I’d also suggest making friends with other writers. It’s a lot less lonely if you’re communicating with people who are going through the same thing.
If you’re not getting any response, try to re-examine your query and take an honest look at your query letter and your book. Is the timing just not right for your genre/sub-genre right now? Is your idea too similar to someone else’s? I’d also suggest giving your query letter and manuscript to your writer friends to get some feedback. Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes goes a long way in pointing out an issue you didn’t even notice because you’ve been looking at it for so long.
Speaking of working with critique partners, how do you determine what notes to incorporate (or ignore) while drafting and revising your manuscript?
The most important thing to remember is that as the author, you have final say over your manuscript. Just because someone pointed out all these issues doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to fix all of them. But it’s also important to remember that your work isn’t perfect and is always in need of revision and improvement.
If someone is pointing something out to be fixed in your manuscript, there’s usually a good reason for it (it’s usually to make something clearer or more compelling in the story, which are good things). Sit with their comments for a few days and see if you can figure out ways to make that part of the story better. If it’s more an issue of someone just being mean or offering unhelpful feedback, then definitely ignore it.
Also, the longer you write and revise, you definitely get better at determining what feedback is worth listening to and what you should just ignore.
In addition to publishing with Berkley, you’ve also self-published your novella, If You Never Come Back. Why did you decide to go that route with your novella?
As much as I love being part of traditional publishing, I also wanted to see what it was like to self-publish a book on my own. Traditional publishing is great, but you don’t get to control every aspect of the process. When I self-published If You Never Come Back, I got to call the shots on everything—the cover, the editorial process, release date, marketing and publicity, everything. It was a cool experience seeing what having all that control was like and to know that everything was up to me.
What are your best tips for people thinking about self-publishing their novels?
I’d definitely recommend hiring professionals to help you—a professional cover designer, editor, etc. You want your book to be as polished as possible when you put it out into the world.
Have you ever written yourself into a corner or realized a plot point or scene just wasn’t working? How did you overcome that?
Yes, many times. It happens most often with scenes—thankfully I haven’t had to scrap an entire plot or book (knock on wood!). But when it happens with a scene, I just remove the scene, paste it into another Word doc (in case I need to come back and refer to anything), and then start over. I’ve gotten a lot better at letting go of scenes that just aren’t working (it used to be so hard to get rid of things during the revision process). Honestly, the more you do it, the more you get used to it and realize it’s not a big deal, it’s just part of the revision process.
Last question: What’s your favorite “page-turner”?
I have so many! I love A Good Night’s Sleep by Stefanie Simpson. It’s such an angsty enemies-to-lovers romance that I couldn’t get enough of. It does a great job of depicting kink and consent in a healthy way. It’s also incredibly steamy, which I love!
I read Not Suitable For Work by Skye McDonald while standing at my kitchen island. I loved it so much and couldn’t pry myself away from it. It’s the perfect office romance set in Nashville (I’m an absolute sucker for office romances and Nashville).
Thanks so much for chatting with us, Sarah! Check out Sarah’s novels, Faker and Simmer Down on Amazon. Her latest novel, Sips & Strokes (co-written with Skye McDonald under the pen name Sarah Skye), debuted on April 20. If you’re interested in writing romance yourself, tune in to her “Quick and Dirty Romance Podcast”!
And follow Sarah on social media here: