Cheryl Rainfield & A Query That Worked

I'm lucky (or cunning) enough to have lured yet another successful writer over to my blog for an SAT - Successful Author Talk. SAT authors have conquered the query, slain the synopsis and attained the pinnacle of published. How'd they do it? Let's ask 'em!


 Cheryl Rainfield is the author of  SCARS (an ALA Top 10 Quick Picks & Rainbow List book) about Kendra, a girl who must face her past and stop hurting herself before it's too late; the upcoming HUNTED about Cassie, a telepath on the run from government troopers who must choose between saving herself or saving the world, and two hi-lo (high interest, low vocabulary) fantasies: SkinWalkers: Walking Both Sides, and Dragon Speaker: The Last Dragon.  YA author Ellen Hopkins described SCARS as "a brave novel, a read-in-one-sitting-except-when-you-have-to-put-it-down-to-breathe novel." Cheryl is an advocate for teens who’ve been through rough experiences, especially self-harm and sexual abuse, as well as teens grappling with sexual identity.  Trailers for SCARS and her It Gets Better and Reasons Not To Hurt Yourself videos attest to her dedication.

Are you a Planner or a Panster?

I used to be mostly a panster, but I’ve started to do more planning with recent books. I used to start writing with just an idea of the issue or topic, a first line in my head, and knowing where I wanted the character to end up, and then I would do a huge amount of rewrites and edits to bring it up to a publishable level. (I did over 30 drafts for SCARS before it was published.) Lately, I start off with my idea, first line, and where I want to end up, but I also write out the major plot turning points and reveals once I’ve got a draft. I go through my notes from John Truby’s ANATOMY OF A STORY and Michael Hauge's WRITING SCREENPLAYS THAT SELL, and then I figure out in detail the things I need to show, change, or add. In my next book from scratch (I’ve other manuscripts that I’ve already finished that I may want to rework) I may try to plan out details before I write a complete first draft.

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?

My first draft takes me about two months, but then I rewrite and edit and re-edit it. I edited and rewrote SCARS for more than 10 years before it was published. Hunted (coming out this October from WestSide) took a lot less; I did 14 drafts before it was accepted. I think I’m getting better. (smiling)

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi tasker?

I try to work on just one book at a time, but sometimes I have to work on two, with ideas for another percolating. I’m always working on the next novel while I’m editing or doing book promotion on the current (and past) books. I do book promotion every day, which takes a lot of time, focus, and energy.

Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?

No. Writing came easily to me. It was talking aloud that was hard for me (my abusers threatened to kill me if I talked about the abuse). Writing was my safety, my way of reaching others and communicating, and it usually flows for me.

How many trunked books did you have before you were agented?

I had about 8-10 manuscripts already written before I was agented and before I got my first book contract. Some of those manuscripts I will be rewriting, editing, and polishing in the hopes of future publication. Others I may put away or scrap.

Have you ever quit on a ms, and how did you know it was time?

I haven’t completely quit on a ms yet, though I’ve set some of them aside and don’t know if I’ll get back to them. I have other books I want to write as well.

Who is your agent and how did you get that “Yes!” out of them?

Andrea Somberg of Harvey Klinger agency is my wonderful agent ; she's sensitive, thoughtful, savvy, and really knows her stuff. Can you tell I like her? (grinning) I’d submitted another manuscript to her before SCARS, and she’d rejected it with the kindest, most thoughtful rejection letter I’d ever received, with helpful feedback, saying if I had another project and didn't have representation by then, she’d like to work with me. I’d read that one way to get an agent is to contact them after you get an offer. So I wrote her when I got an offer from WestSide for SCARS, and thankfully she liked the manuscript and became my agent. I am so happy with her!

How long did you query before landing your agent?

I submitted SCARS (and edited and rewrote it) more than 30 times over 10 years before I got both a contract and a agent. I lost track of how many queries I sent out (to both agents and publishers) but it was hundreds. I should have been targeting agents more narrowly, though. I was also working on other books during that time.

How did that feel, the first time you saw your book  for sale?

It felt wonderful. Seeing my book in a real live bookstore, seeing it available online—what a good feeling!

How much input do you have on cover art?

Authors don’t usually have a lot of input on cover art. I was lucky; I mentioned to my publisher that I had a professional photograph of my (scarred) arm, and wondered if they’d be willing to look at it. They were, and they used it on the cover of SCARS. I’m so happy with it! I’d worried beforehand about possibly having a cover that sensationalized self-harm, or that glossed right over it. What they did with the photo of my arm felt perfect to me—it tells the reader immediately what the book is about, but it isn’t violent, and the scars are muted yet still visible.

What’s something you learned from the process that surprised you?

I used to think that being a writer meant mostly writing. I knew from my research that I’d have to do book promotion—but I was surprised at how much book promotion I actually have to do. I work on book promotion every day, and it takes a lot of time and energy.

How much of your own marketing do you do?

I do a huge amount. I am very active on Twitter and email/elists, and I have my own website and blog, which I regularly update. I also post to Facebook and to other sites, like RedRoom and AboutMe, and I have a Tumblr and Facebook site for SCARS. I often do author interviews and guest blogs, buy my own books (directly from my publisher) and mail them out for review to online reviews who've agreed to review it, hire people to create book trailers for me, get bookmarks printed and mail them out to people and bring them to signings, do signings and appearances at the major conferences my publisher asks me to be at, and keep trying to network.

When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?

I think it’s important to start gaining an audience even before you get published, if you can. I created a website and had it established for years before I was published, and I think it helped. I know it helped me have a higher ranking with my website, at the very least.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

Immensely! I think social media has given me and other writers a real boost. I get to talk to readers, other writers, editors, agents, who I wouldn’t be able to talk to otherwise. I really think it helps get the word out about my books; SCARS might have been buried under all the other books that get published without it.

Cheryl was wonderful enough to share her Query that Worked with us - check it out. It's a great example of how to get an agent *after* securing your own contract.

I just received an offer and a contract from WestSide Books for my edgy YA manuscript, SCARS. I was wondering if you would work with me. I would really like an agent I trust to work with the contract--and to help me with future books. You previously considered a YA ms of mine, and gave me extensive and kind feedback about it. You also said that you thought I was a very talented writer, and that if somewhere down the line I found myself without representation but with a new project on my hands, that you'd love to take a look.

I went through my emails and found yours, and realized how much I liked what you said to me in your rejection letter. How comfortable I felt with your approach, personality wise. How much I valued how you really praised/liked my work and were personable. I really want to like the agent I work with, to feel comfortable with them, and to have them love my writing. I think I would have that with you. So, please let me know.

I really like the vision for my book the the editor at West Side has, and her ideas of promotion. I would like to go with WestSide Books. I want someone I trust to negotiate what can be negotiated on the contract, and to help me submit future books, of which I will have many. I have written 7-10 YA manuscripts already, though they need a lot of editing. MIND TRAVELER is the next closest to publication, I think. I write and edit quickly, but I put my manuscripts through many edits. I am starting to get better and faster at that, though, and seem to need less revisions to produce good-quality writing. I write both YA fantasy and realistic fantasy, and have also recently written a first draft of a middle-grade magic realism book (but I need to put it through a few edits before it is publishable material).

In SCARS, my 44,500-word YA manuscript, fifteen-year-old Kendra Marshall is keeping a secret, even from herself—the identity of who abused her. It hurts too much to remember, yet still the memories claw at her mind. Kendra cuts to stop those memories—but someone is following her, threatening to kill her if she talks. With the help of the girl she loves, Kendra must face her darkest secrets to find safety, and, ultimately, her own strength.

Many teens secretly self-harm; it is often a painful, hidden issue. I have drawn on my personal experience of self-harm to offer an insider perspective in SCARS.

I write both edgy YA fiction and YA fantasy. My YA hi-lo medieval fantasy, Dragon Speaker: The Last Dragon will be published by HIP Books in Sept 2009, and I have agreed to write another book for them for 2010. Two of my non-fiction articles on self-harm and self-care are published in Jan Sutton’s Healing the Hurt Within by How to Books (2005). My paranormal‑suspense short story ‘The Healer’ was published in an anthology by Red Deer Press (The Horrors Terrifying Tales: Book Two, Peter Carver (ed), 2006), and my short story 'Comfort Food' was published in a YA horror anthology by Graveside Tales (Fried! Fast Food, Slow Deaths, Colleen Morris, Joel A. Sutherland (eds), Dec 2007). I am a member of SCBWI and CANSCAIP (Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators, and Performers), and have been part of a regular YA critique group for more than 10 years.