Mentor Zeba Shahnaz

Claire Friedman, InkWell Management

YA and Adult Fantasy

MIDNIGHT STRIKES (2023) Delacorte Press

Zeba Shahnaz (ZAY-ba shah-NAHZ) writes fantasy full of political intrigue, twisted romance, and a healthy dose of existential trauma. Her debut novel, MIDNIGHT STRIKES, is a YA fantasy with a time loop twist out in Spring 2023 from Delacorte Press. A proud Pakistani-American, she translated her love of storytelling into a graduate degree analyzing national identity, culture, and cinema in South Asia. She splits her time between New Jersey, where she grew up, and Washington, D.C., where she works as a researcher.

I’ve been a writer for much of my life, but over the years, l found it difficult to actually finish a novel draft, let alone get one into querying shape. I had come thiiiiis close on several projects, but I just couldn’t make it to the end.

That changed in 2018, when I came up with the idea for what would become my debut YA fantasy novel, MIDNIGHT STRIKES. I knew a time loop fantasy, of all things, would be incredibly difficult, and pulling it off would require that I push past my comfort zone in terms of subgenre (e.g. action/adventure/mystery) and plot (e.g. having one). But I knew I couldn’t let it go before giving it a serious try.

About a year later, I finally made it over the finish line with an 150k-word draft (yes, even at the best of times, I’m a serious over-writer). Over the next year and a half, I went through 4-5 rounds of revisions with friends and critique partners, including a 4-month period when I did nothing but rewrite the opening two chapters over and over again, before I was ready to send out my first queries. About two months later, I signed with my agent, who, to my great shock and relief, thought the book was ready to go on sub as it was. My year-plus of agonizing revisions had paid off! We went on sub soon after, and accepted a preempt offer from a dream publisher.

I’ve honed my skills over many years of writing, critiquing, and cheerleading of friends, beta readers, and critique partners. Over the last several years, I’ve worked with friends at all levels of their publishing journeys — whether drafting, querying, on submission, or awaiting publication. I’ve helped writers untangle plotting problems, further develop character arcs, and refine their prose; I’ve edited their query and synopsis packages; and I’ve seen so many of the highs and lows this industry has to offer.

In my other life, I have a BA in History and an MA in South Asian Studies, and edit and critique written products for work.


I owe so much of my love for writing to the critique groups and writing communities I’ve been a part of — friends and readers who push each other to improve their craft, cheerlead each other as they pursue (and achieve!!) their goals, and also make fun of each other’s more-than-occasionally ridiculous characters. I would love to share what I’ve gained from my years of writing and critique experience (across my academic, professional, and now publishing careers) with a mentee, help them to the next level of their craft, and be at their side for whatever comes next in their writing careers.

My work tends to fit squarely in the upper or crossover YA fantasy space, so I would love to mentor a project in that vein, whether it’s historical (or history-inspired) fantasy, urban/contemporary fantasy, or more in the speculative realm. I love strong romantic subplots/throughlines, and fantasy romances even more, though not featuring a central ship(s) is not a dealbreaker on my end. I’m equally comfortable with slower-paced books that serve as extended character studies as I am with fast-paced books with intricate plots. Above all, I want to be moved by your characters, get lost in the worlds you construct around them, and feel dazzled by your standout prose and narrative voice.

I’m eager to uplift marginalized voices, particularly BIPOC and/or Muslim authors (though no need to self-identify if you’d prefer not to).

Young Adult

  • Fantasy
  • Magical Realism/Fabulism
  • Urban/Contemporary Fantasy

Stories that twine high-concept fantasies with swoony central romances are closest to my heart. If your book interrogates or reimagines particular histories, cultures, or politics, I’m going to adore it. If your main character(s) is ‘unlikeable’ or your central ship is ‘twisted,’ I will love them forever. I also value impactful, beautiful prose that lends itself to a book’s atmosphere.

I love fantasies that include elements of mysteries/thrillers, political intrigue, non-linear or otherwise inventive timelines; and mixed media excerpts. My favorite tropes and subjects include: enemies and/or rivals to lovers (yes I know they’re different, no I will not expound unless asked); lovers to enemies; fake relationships; slow burn romance; arranged marriages; celebrity/celeb culture stories; found families; ensemble casts; complex family relationships; and spy shenanigans.



  • Edit Letter (Big Picture developmental feedback)
  • Line edit (dropping notes into a Word Document)
  • Skype or phone call
  • Freestyle in chat

I am generally even-keeled in my critiques, but can be blunt and offer tough love when needed. I’ll provide an edit letter and in-line comments, and we can approach revisions iteratively or all at once, depending on revision styles and our respective schedules. I’m a somewhat hands-on editor, but a collaborative one as well, so communication will be key to devising a revision plan that gets your book to where you want it to be. I love brainstorming and am happy to talk through problems and questions that come up. Otherwise, I’d expect a whole lot of yelling from me about your characters, for better or worse.

My ideal mentee is someone who takes the mentorship/revision process seriously, but doesn’t necessarily take *themselves* seriously. You should be interested in learning and improving on your craft and prose, willing to honestly appraise your work, comfortable with blunt critiques (which, I promise, would come from a place of deep admiration!), and ready to roll up your sleeves and kill some darlings if need be. All that said, this is your story, so you should also have a clear vision of what the core of it is and be willing to dig into that with me. I’m just here to help you shape it to be the best it can.


Remember that this is just a wishlist. If you don’t see something here that reflects your work but think we’d be a good match, please submit anyway!

  • Distinctly-rendered worlds and unique magic systems.
  • Fantasy romance anything.
  • Morally gray characters, particularly antiheroes and “unlikeable”/monstrous/villainous female characters (though I do love a unique monster/villain boy).
  • Strong romantic subplots/throughlines, even if (especially if!) they’re ‘complicated’ or ‘twisted’ in some way. (My kingdom for a ship that could be comped to Taryn/Cardan from THE CRUEL PRINCE).
  • Second-world YA fantasies inspired by particular historical eras or regions. Especially those inspired by or set in South Asia, though I’m up for pretty much anything you throw at me in this vein (particularly from BIPOC and/or Muslim authors).
  • Historical or contemporary/urban YA fantasies inspired by or engaging with Islamic mythology and/or with South Asian cultures/mythologies/histories.
  • Contemporary/urban fantasies with diverse, compelling ensemble casts.
  • Unique, twisty plot and/or structural elements (e.g. unreliable narrator(s), alternating timelines, mixed media excerpts).
  • Courtly, political, or spy-related intrigue.
  • Complicated family dynamics.
  • Stories about fame, power, and/or celebrity (anything from royalty to, well, modern celebrity).
  • Diaspora feels, in any context.
  • Fantasies (any subgenre) with the biting tone, twisted themes, and emotional devastation of SUCCESSION.


  • Horror.
  • Hard sci-fi.
  • Grimdark.
  • Extreme violence or gore.
  • White savior narratives.
  • Plots that could be boiled down to “wait, The Oppressed are people too?”
  • Anything without magical or supernatural elements.


YA Fantasy: The Queen’s Thief series (Megan Whalen Turner), The Winner’s Trilogy + The Forgotten Gods Duology (Marie Rutkoski), The Raven Cycle + Dreamer Trilogy (Maggie Stiefvater), Vespertine (Margaret Rogerson), The Gilded Wolves Trilogy (Roshani Chokshi), The Diviners (Libba Bray), The Candle and the Flame (Nafiza Azad), The Grishaverse (Leigh Bardugo)

Adult SFF: Spinning Silver (Naomi Novik), Empire of Sand (Tasha Suri), The Daevabad Trilogy (S.A. Chakraborty), Mexican Gothic (Silvia Moreno-Garcia), The Winternight Trilogy (Katherine Arden), Radiance (Catherynne Valente)

TV: The Americans, The Great, Succession, You, New Girl, 30 Rock, Gilmore Girls, Community, Veep, Only Murders in the Building, Fleabag, Arrested Development, The Bachelor/ette franchise

Movies: Thoroughbreds, Little Women, Haider, Palm Springs, The Princess Diaries 2, The Phantom of the Opera, Knives Out, Pride and Prejudice, Clueless, Andhadhun, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, La La Land, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Romeo + Juliet, Marie Antoinette