Emily Arsenault On How Writing Can Be A Comfort... It's Publishing That's Stressful

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!


Today's guest for the SAT (Successful Author Talk) is Emily Arsenault, author of the upcoming novel THE LEAF READER, which released June 13 from Soho Teen. Emily studied philosophy in college, and worked as an editorial assistant at Merriam-Webster from 1998-2002, helping write definitions for their dictionaries. She has served in the Peace Corps, working in rural South Africa.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

I’m more of a pantser but I always come up with a vague plan (describing the ending and the most important reveals or secrets) to help me get through. Sometimes I’m just telling myself I have a plan to work up the confidence to drive toward the middle and ending of the book. Often I change the ending and must go back and revise everything. But telling myself I know where I’m going (even if I’m lying to myself) always helps to motivate me and get a lot of good character information and scenes down on paper before having to go back and reconsider plot points.

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

It depends, but on average it usually takes about nine or ten months for me to write a first draft. Then I usually revise for a couple of months.

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

I used to always write only one project at a time, when I was doing adult books exclusively. Now I’m trying to switch back and forth between adult and young adult. I can’t really draft two projects at once. I can revise one while drafting another. Or start brainstorming for the next book while finishing up the last. But I can’t imagine being right in the messy middle of two books at once.

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

Not really. I started writing when I was about ten. At the time, I always found it much less scary than, say, speaking in public or social situations. Writing is very comforting to me. It’s the publishing part that gets a little scary. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, haunted by ill-advised sentences or plot points that are now published and I can’t take back.

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

I have one trunked manuscript. I really should burn it because I don’t want anyone to find it and read it. It’s a YA book I wrote about fourteen years ago. After realizing that book was not publishable, I started The Broken Teaglass, which was (eventually—about four years later) my first published novel. Now, five books and more than a decade later, I’ve finally come out with my first YA—The Leaf Reader. I always knew I’d come back around to YA eventually.

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

My agent is Laura Langlie. She was one of the first agents to whom I sent a query letter. She asked for the manuscript almost immediately, and I sent it. Then I got a bunch of rejections from other agents and, based on some of their feedback, started a major revision of the book, changing the ending and some other fundamental things. Then this one Big Shot Agent (someone who had been in the industry a very long time, edited and agented all kinds of NYTimes Bestselling authors, etc.) called me and said she’d loved my first three chapters and wanted me to send the rest of the manuscript right away. I had to tell her I was in the middle of revising it. But, pumped by her interest, I amped up my revision and did it in three sleepless and caffeine-fueled weeks. 

While I was waiting for her response, I noticed Laura was still on my list as having the old manuscript. Going against advice I had read online, I wrote her asking if she wanted to see my new manuscript. She said yes. About a month later, Big Shot Agent sent me back my manuscript cover letter with “Not for me” scribbled on it, and I sank into a bit of a depression, telling my husband I wasn’t sure if I could handle this process anymore and wasn’t sure I had any more revisions in me. I stopped querying and decided to take a break from the whole process. A few weeks later Laura (who was one of two agents who still had the manuscript) called me and offered representation. Then she got an offer on the book practically the day she sent it out. I sometimes hesitate to tell this story because it is not really one of grit and endurance, and I’m not sure what aspiring writers can learn from it except that things can change quickly.

How long did you query before landing your agent?

I think it took about nine months. But I wasn’t querying straight through. I stopped occasionally to do revisions and adjustments—as I described above. I think sent about thirty queries in all. Mostly snail mail queries.

Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?

Something that worked for me was to query in small batches. That way, if you get any decent feedback, you can apply it to your next batch. Also, even if you don’t get much feedback, it gives you time to go back and reconsider things (like the wording of you query, or the pacing of your opening chapters) if it appears something isn’t working when you start getting responses. It gives you time to learn from the process and still have agents left to query.

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

I’m going to be honest. It felt very weird. I always feel sort of exposed, when a book goes on sale. Don’t get me wrong—I was ecstatic when my first book sold to a publisher, and still feel very, very lucky. But when a book comes out there is always this feeling that a little piece of your heart is up for sale on Amazon. Since my first book, I’ve tried to be more professional and less emotional about it, but I still have moments when I feel this way.

How much input do you have on cover art?

My adult publisher (William Morrow) is always great about asking me what I would like to see on the cover—and Soho Teen was as well for The Leaf Reader. Usually what they come up with is different from what I suggested but much cooler than anything I could’ve conceived of in my head. I’ve always been really happy with my covers even though they are often quite different from what I expected.

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

I think it might be that I almost always end up feeling grateful for things that initially look like setbacks. For example, one time my publisher was not satisfied with my title, and we were brainstorming for a new one. I was getting really frustrated and there was even talk of bumping the book to another season unless we came up with something decent soon. On a day when I thought there were not possible ideas left, I looked back at my list of ideas and quotes and something jumped out at me that I hadn’t considered before. (This was for my adult book What Strange Creatures.) I loved that title, and ended up being grateful that the publisher kept pushing until a better title emerged. I have a ton of examples like this, when something about the process felt crazy-making at first, but ended up being for the better.

How much of your own marketing do you?   

I always feel like I could do more marketing stuff, but sometimes I’m still not sure what is the best use of time and energy. I have a website, a Facebook page, and an e-mail newsletter. I do I try to do the occasional conference (especially when asked) but it can be difficult to budget for that. I do events at bookstores and libraries, and guest blog posts for various sites.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

I think it can, if you’re willing to invest time in it and be yourself there. I don’t think I’ve taken full advantage of social media opportunities. But I feel like if I threw myself into Facebook and Twitter, I wouldn’t have much left for the actual writing. I admire and envy writers who can do both well on a regular basis.