S. K. Ali: On Writing the Stand-Alone Sequel

In this article, award-winning author S. K. Ali discusses how she tackled writing Misfit in Love, the stand-alone sequel to her novel Saints and Misfits.
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S. K. Ali is the author of Saints and Misfits (Simon & Schuster, 2017), a finalist for the American Library Association’s 2018 William C. Morris award. Her debut novel won critical acclaim for its portrayal of an unapologetic Muslim-American teen’s life. Saints and Misfits was featured on several Best Teen Novels of 2017 lists, including from Entertainment Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and the New York Public Library. It was also a CBC Canada Reads 2018 longlist title and featured in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, NBC News, Huffington Post, Salon, Bustle, CBC Radio’s "The Next Chapter," The Social, The Morning Show, and other North American media. Learn more at SKAliBooks.com.

S. K. Ali

S. K. Ali

In this post, Ali discusses how she tackled writing Misfit in Love, the stand-alone sequel to her novel Saints and Misfits, and much more!

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Name: S. K. Ali
Literary agent: Sara Crowe
Book title: Misfit in Love
Publisher: Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Release date: May 25, 2021
Genre: Young adult, romance
Previous titles: Love from A to Z, Saints & Misfits, and The Proudest Blue

Misfit in Love by S. K. Ali

Misfit in Love by S. K. Ali

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What prompted you to write this book?

Misfit in Love, a companion novel to my debut, Saints and Misfits, grew out of three aspirations: a desire to respond to young readers persistently asking me what happened to Janna, the main character in Saints and Misfits, after the first book ended, a personal wish to tell a joyous Muslim story, and a quest to unpack an issue affecting all communities: prejudice.

I took these three goals and set them to a big Muslim wedding by the lake in a quaint town called Mystic Lake, where a strangely quirky (garish?) inn touts itself as cute, and a dedicated ice cream truck makes daily appearances at Janna’s house, including on the day of the wedding itself, playing its inescapable jingle into the early summer evening.

Wait, this sounds kind of like an episode of Black Mirror. I promise you Misfit in Love is breezy and fun, while deftly handling serious topics. Without creepy amusement park vibes. I promise.

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How long did it take to go from idea to publication? 

The rough story threads began germinating in the spring of 2019, though some of their seeds were planted earlier, and by November of that year, I had a semi-polished draft of the book which I submitted to my publisher.

This first version had a strong framing device that connected to Saints and Misfits quite clearly. It was also very obviously a sequel in the sense that readers picked up Janna’s life two years after the events of the first novel.

However, and fortunately, I received great editorial direction that helped me grow as a writer; I learned how to write a stand-alone sequel that would allow new readers to enter Janna’s world without having known her story previously. Thus, I completely removed the framing device—consisting of a book found in a bag that a friend of Janna’s had gifted her before he passed away—which relied too much on reader knowledge of the special relationship between these two characters. By making this next book distinct from the first book (except in voice and tone), it’s hoped that new readers will feel welcomed.

Misfit in Love comes out on May 25, 2021, so it took two years from idea to publication.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title? 

A surprise I learned: that I could actually keep a gorgeous book cover under wraps for almost a YEAR before the big reveal, as the Misfit in Love cover was designed and done very early on in the novel’s journey. I’m the type that gushes in excitement during all pivotal points of publishing (MY FIRST EDIT LETTER FOR THIS BOOK! OMG, A REQUEST FOR COVER INPUT?!? A WRITER’S DIGEST INTERVIEW?!? Etc.) so to keep something like a cover quiet was a stunning accomplishment. And now, I’ve matured and am currently keeping several secrets. *insert grinch-like grin*

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Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

One beautiful learning moment was that I realized how easy it is to slide back into the heads of characters you’ve written before, how amazing it is to know them inside out and write from that place of three-dimensional knowledge. As a result, I was hit with the ah-ha of why so many writers love revisiting the worlds they’ve made to write a series or off-shoot books. It’s like these characters are just hanging around in your mental space waiting for you to pick them up again and set them to do new tasks, go on new adventures, meet new people (as Janna does in this book—you may see from the cover that she navigates not one, not two, but THREE boys, and that’s over one weekend, I might add).

This was an ah-ha to me because I’d always thought that I was the type of writer who wanted a fresh NEW set of circumstances for every single title of mine. I’d even say that to friends in a snobby voice, I write books to discover new characters, not rehash old ones, as though it was disdainful to “recycle” characters. But, haha, jokes on me as I’ve gone on to frolic with characters from three of my previous books, in subsequent stories.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

I hope they get a sense of the diversity and fullness of Muslim lives and that we Muslims—having not had the opportunity to helm our own narratives while simultaneously finding ourselves discussed or portrayed almost incessantly in news media and popular culture—have so many stories to share and tell. And that these stories don’t all include pain or trauma or connective cues to oft-repeated stereotypes about our communities. (Consider the absurdity that there was a point when too many books featuring Muslim characters were stories about a suicide bomber trying really hard not to be a suicide bomber or a girl freeing herself from oppressive Muslim-ness. Come on!)

I also hope that readers feel like they’ve actually attended a wedding in person, whether you like to schmooze with the crowd or sit apart observing everyone like misfit Janna—a socializing feat which may be welcome during this era of lockdowns and social distancing (which Janna greatly approves of, pandemic or not).

And, a footnote: this is not just any wedding, but a three-day event that includes a henna party, and a groomzilla with very bad decoration and entertainment ideas—who a team of dedicated, covert wedding-guests-with-clipboards must surreptitiously take down before the actual wedding.

S. K. Ali: On Writing the Stand-Alone Sequel

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

I’ll share the advice I always do: find out the writing processes of other authors, their different ways of plotting, of structuring, of crafting, revising, editing, and try them out. You may find a method that makes better sense for you than your current one. And then, even after you fall in love with “the (new) way”, don’t be hesitant to learn additional methods of approaching the craft, as developing fresh perspectives may lead to unlocking further creative potential.

Personal perspective on this advice: I find I always teach myself “how to write a book” anew when I’m starting a new project and in doing so, I’ve added to my repertoire of skills, my tools of the trade, learned new ways of approaching story-making—which all contribute to a sense of confidence in my ability to respond precisely to editorial direction. Which then makes the process of saying YES to new, exciting ideas easier. And, instead of keeping the act of writing as the sadly-solo endeavor it often is, learning from other authors makes our profession feel like an energetic and fresh space of true discovery. 

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