Interview with Cinda Williams Chima

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! Even more special - this is a WoW! Edition of the SAT - We're Ohio Writers! Yeah - cause we grow 'em here.


Todays guest is New York Times bestselling author Cinda Williams Chima.  Chima began writing romance novels in junior high school. Her HEIR CHRONICLES young adult contemporary fantasy series includes The Warrior Heir (2006), The Wizard Heir (2007), and The Dragon Heir (2008), all from Hyperion, with two more books forthcoming.

Chima’s best-selling YA high fantasy THE SEVEN REALMS series launched with The Demon King (2009), followed by The Exiled Queen (September, 2010) with The Gray Wolf Throne scheduled for fall, 2011. There are four books planned.

Chima’s books have received starred reviews in Kirkus and VOYA, among others. They have been named Booksense and Indie Next picks, an International Reading Association Young Adult Choice, a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age, to the Kirkus Best YA list, and the VOYA Editors’ Choice, Best Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, and Perfect Tens lists.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

I'm a pantster. I've tried outlining ahead and it just doesn't work for me. Of course, that means there's always lots of revision to be done.

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

Depends on what you include. For a first draft, maybe seven months. For everything, a year. I've been publishing a book a year since 2006.

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

Before I sold my first novel, I wrote feature articles and essays as well as novel-length fiction. Eventually, I made a conscious decision to focus on fiction and cut back on my freelance work. If you publish a book a year, you are almost always working on two or three things at once--writing the first draft of your next book, editing your previous book with your editor, and the marketing piece, of course.

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

Well. I was in third grade and I had a lot of other things to be scared of besides writing. Like monsters under the bed. And dying young. And snakes.

How many trunked books (if any) did you have before you were agented?

Hmm. Well, The Warrior Heir was the first book I finished as an adult, and it was published. However, I do have a humongous high fantasy series that I never finished called THE STAR MARKED WARDER. My current series, THE SEVEN REALMS, is set in that world. So nothing is wasted. And I may yet go back and rework SMW.

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

See above. I quit because it hadn't sold in a year, and my other series HAD sold, and I needed to buckle down and write another book in the series that was selling.

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

I have had three agents. The first two I found through the query process and my current agent inherited me when my previous agent left the agency. It definitely wasn't through industry connections. I do think conferences can be a great way to meet agents and decide who you want representing your work.

How long did you query before landing your agent?

I went through two different agent search processes. The first time it took me four years to find an agent. The second time was relatively quick. On my last go-round, I sent out 25 letters to targeted agents and had positive responses from two.

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

The biggest mistake that I see writers make is focusing too much on the query process and not enough on craft. At the end of the day, it's all about the book. So before you start attending sessions on query letters, marketing, etc., make sure your work is where it should be. I think it took me four years to find my first agent not because my query letters were lacking, but because the work wasn't ready for prime time.
I included the first four pages of my manuscript because I hoped my writing would win them over. And, in this case, it did. Plus the agent that took me on was new to the business. I don't think a veteran agent would have signed up a 250k debut novel. When she wasn't able to sell that, she shopped THE WARRIOR HEIR, which did sell.

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

I went out with my critique posse to a bookstore on the on-sale date and found out my book was still in the back room. We made them get them out and put them on the shelf. I've attached a photo of me on that day.

How much input do you have on cover art?

My editors have always asked me for suggestions as to what could go on the covers, and they run the artwork by me in its various stages. I don't have veto power or anything, but they've always responded to my input. I think the key is to be able to make a case for why you want what you want.

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

The most surprising thing was that all my troubles didn't end when I found an agent. And the second surprising thing was that all my troubles didn't end when I found a publisher.

How much of your own marketing do you?

My publisher's involvement in marketing has grown as my books have gained momentum. Early on, they were great about sending out review copies to librarians and bookstores. They printed advance reading copies and took them to conferences to increase the buzz. More recently, they've arranged appearances at venues like Book Expo and Texas Library Association. For the last two books, they've sent me on tour, which is awesome.

I do as much as I can myself. I have a website and a blog and pages on Facebook for The Heir Chronicles and The Seven Realms series. I don't Twitter--from what I can tell, most of my readers aren't on Twitter, though many of my colleagues are.

I also do school visits and library/conference appearances that I arrange on my own. I think of all the things I do, the website and the social networking pieces are key.

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

I think you have to decide upfront where your talents lie and how much time you have for this. Some authors will build a platform by hosting a writing/publishing related blog. I think it's critical to have all that up and running when you publish your first book, but until then, your first priority is sharpening your writing skills. I've always had very challenging day jobs, and I was already getting up at four a.m. and falling asleep on the keyboard at night. I didn't have time for massive platform-building. If you sell a book, you'll usually have about a year's lead time for building that puppy.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

Yes, I do. I don't have any data to support that, though. I think it develops a relationship between you and your readers and helps keep you front-of-mind between books. Plus I enjoy interacting with readers.