Emma Pei Yin’s journey to publishing success

Emma Pei Yin has always loved stories, and she was constantly creating characters and worlds in her head. When she went looking for those stories on bookshelves, however, she discovered that there were hardly any Asian voices being published. So she decided to write her own.

Before discovering Australian Writers’ Centre, Emma initially wrote a historical fiction manuscript. “AWC came into the picture when I had finished several drafts of a historical fiction novel,” says Emma. “An Australian agent was interested in it but after rejecting it, and providing some insightful feedback, I knew I was lacking in craft.

“So I rolled up my sleeves, signed up for as many courses as I could with AWC and just went from there.”

After fine-tuning her skills, Emma perfected her manuscript and her pitch, and received offers from five literary agents before signing with Laurie Robertson at Peters Fraser Dunlop.

“Laurie’s enthusiasm and the way she was able to describe scenes and parts of the manuscript back to me during our first meeting was such a tell-tale sign of her dedication and passion for the work,” Emma says.

Finding the right creative path

Growing up Asian in the UK and then Hong Kong, Emma had a complicated relationship with identity. Those complications extended to her creative life, too.

“In the UK, I was too Asian and didn’t quite belong. In Hong Kong, I was too westernised and again, I didn’t quite belong,” Emma says. “I’ve always loved writing and never pursued anything creative because I was raised in a traditional Chinese household where one didn’t simply pursue creative journeys. Creativity was a hobby, never the endgame. After high school, I was accepted into The New York Film Academy. I wanted to write screenplays. I wanted to act in them. Unfortunately, due to what I like to call now as ‘creative differences’ with my parents, I never ended up going.”

Instead, Emma moved into bookselling.

“When I got a job as a bookseller, I realised that Asian voices in the literary scene were shockingly low in numbers. And it’s not from a lack of Asian writers because, believe me, we are out there,” Emma says. “After that realisation, I decided to write my stories down. I mean, I wanted to see these stories on the page, and if I didn’t write it, it would never happen.”

Emma wrote several drafts of a historical fiction novel and found an Australian agent who was interested but who eventually rejected it. That’s when Emma turned to the AWC’s suite of creative writing and publishing courses.

“What I love about AWC is that most of their courses run on your own schedule. You can log in and study any time that suits you and the writing community at AWC is incredibly supportive. Everyone is out there supporting one another, and it’s just SO wonderful. Feedback is offered from your peers from the perspective of them wanting you to succeed and to do well. It’s so, so, lovely. I’ve found, though, in and outside of AWC, that writers are generally extremely supportive of one another. I think it’s because we know how much blood, sweat, and tears go into writing a story.

“The courses have really helped shape my writing mindset and style as a writer. I think the key benefit of these courses is that I have had the time to get to know myself better as a writer, and what it is I want to achieve in writing certain stories. I did a six-month mentorship with the wonderful Cathie Tasker [at the Australian Writers' Centre], whom I highly recommend. The way Cathie works suits me incredibly well. I love efficiency, honesty, and bluntness. Cathie changed my YA [young adult] manuscript from good to freaking amazing. She helped shape me into the writer I am today.”

Emma applied her new skills to a YA manuscript, Chasing Echoes in the Rain, which was shortlisted by Allen & Unwin Voices in the Intersection Mentorship Programme.

Persistence and discipline

The writer that Emma is today is persistent and disciplined. After her YA novel was shortlisted, she continued trying to have it published but met with dozens of rejections. So with her next manuscript, a historical fiction novel, Emma tried a different approach, applying lessons learned from courses at the Australian Writers' Centre.

“I spent a week or so researching agency websites and their agent profiles. I’d make a list of any agents that stood out to me and only picked the ones that specifically stated they’re seeking work in the genre I wrote in. I really didn’t want to get rejections like I did the first time around, so I also made sure to spend a lot more time on my query letter, my pitch, and my author bio. I tried to curate the query letters to suit the agent I was reaching out to as well.”

That hard work and persistence paid off; Emma received five offers for that manuscript.

“Honestly, I thought I was being pranked because it all happened so quickly,” Emma told us. “I had sent out my queries the first week of October, and by the end of the week, I had a handful of agents contact me asking for the full manuscript. Then, within a fortnight, I was getting emails back from these agents asking to Zoom/ have a chat over the phone.

“At that stage, I was still very much in shock, so I just locked in dates to Zoom and it wasn’t until I heard the words ‘I would love to represent you’ that everything came back into focus. I remember ending the first Zoom call, going over to the dinner table where my partner had been sitting and waiting for me to join him eagerly, and suddenly bursting into tears. I cried so much. I have never cried from such happiness before. I was just so, so, happy. I couldn’t even eat dinner in the end, I was just too elated. Once I got an offer, I contacted the remaining agents to advise that I had received an offer and that I would be closing my submission within a fortnight. That’s when more offers started coming in.”

A masterpiece in the making

Emma is now working on final developmental and plot edits of that manuscript, When Sleeping Women Wake, with her chosen agent, Laurie Robertson at Peters Fraser Dunlop, and they are then hoping to submit to publishers.

When Sleeping Women Wake unfolds within the tumultuous backdrop of the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong between 1941 to 1945, chronicling the intertwined destinies of a mother, her daughter, and their devoted maid. It weaves a tapestry of themes encompassing love, loss, society, and the ravages of war.

“I was just so driven to write this story, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else on my days off. I wrote at a pace that was comfortable for me, and what I deem as comfortable may not be suitable for someone else. We are all different, so it’s important to focus your energy in creating your own beat, your own rhythm to work along, and don’t compare yourself to someone else’s writing journey. It’s a waste of time, and it’s not good for the creative soul!” Emma says.

As to studying with the Australian Writers' Centre, Emma advises choosing whichever one is going to give you the insights and skills needed for the type of writing you do. “You want to write a historical fiction novel? Enrol in the Historical Fiction course. Want to write with a mentor? Enrol in the Mentorship course. They’re all good in their own ways.”

Courses completed at AWC:

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