Interview With Elana Johnson & 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!

Elana Johnson’s debut novel, POSSESSION, came out on June 7 from Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster). Her popular ebook, From the Query to the Call, is also available for download. School teacher by day, Query Ninja by night, you can find her online at her personal blog or her website. She is a co-organizer of the popular online children's conference WriteOnCon, a founding author of the Query Tracker blog and a contributing author of the League of Extraordinary Writers.


Are you a Planner or Pantster?

Pantser, through and through. Though I like the term “discovery writer” over pantser. ☺

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

Less than 30 days for the first draft. Once I’m drafting, I’m DRAFTING, you know? It’s the revising/editing process that takes months.

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

One project at a time. In my younger writing days, I could write one project and edit another. Now, I focus on one thing at a time. I don’t have enough hours in the day to do more than that.

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

Are you kidding? Absolutely! I still have to overcome the I-Suck Monster every single time I sit down to write. I don’t think that ever goes away, and if it does, I need the secret!

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

Well, depends on what you mean by “trunked.” I had queried and shelved one novel. Possession was my third novel, but my second one was so bad, I didn’t even try to fix it and query. Same for #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9 and #10. I was finishing my 11th novel when I signed with my agent. By the way, novels #4-10 all stink.

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

Yes, see answer above. For my queried novel, I knew it wasn’t the one, but it was my first novel, and I managed to push that feeling away. I queried a lot of agents, and basically had no choice but to shelve it.
For the other novels (#4-10), some of them have potential, but would need to be completely rewritten from blank pages. Some of them are finished, but with huge holes and fatal flaws. I do have about 3 partially finished novels. As a discovery writers, sometimes you find yourself in a corner you can’t get out of…

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

My agent is Michelle Andelman at Regal Literary, and I cold queried her with my query letter + ten pages. She requested the full, and things progressed from there. So I’m a slush pile success story!

How long did you query before landing your agent?

I queried my first book for 8 months. I queried Possession for 8 months. I sent 189 queries for POSSESSION, and over 50 partials/fulls.

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

Don your thick skin, find someone who can (hold your hand) cheer you on, and go for it.

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

Amazing! Utterly amazing! I literally couldn’t stop smiling.

How much input do you have on cover art?

Not much, as is pretty typical. It’s a good thing I loved it!

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

Things happen much slower than I would like, but they DO happen! I mean, we all know publishing is notorious for being slow. But I never actually thought things would happen, and THEY DID. That was surprising.

How much of your own marketing do you?  

I’d like to think I do a lot of marketing. I have a blog, where I post five days a week. I also blog once a week for The League of Extraordinary Writers, a debut dystopian/science fiction blog. I also organize WriteOnCon, a free online writer’s conference, and I started out blogging for QueryTracker in late 2008. So I’ve been doing the whole platform-social-media thing for a while now. I tweet too, and I have a Facebook fanpage that I maintain.

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

I definitely think before. Like I said, I started with QT in late 2008, and I didn’t sign with my agent until November 2009, and my book didn’t come out until mid-2011. But no matter when you start, just start!

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

Definitely! You never know who’s going to retweet something you said, or blog about something you said, or whatever. And that goes out to their readership, and theirs, and theirs… So yeah. Cast your net wide, and don’t burn bridges.

Elana was kind enough to share her winning query for POSSESSION, below:

I used different versions. Sometimes shorter and sometimes longer. Sometimes I compared it to THE GIVER and sometimes to UGLIES. But here’s the one I sent to Ms. Andelman, who later offered representation:

I believe you would be interested in my young adult novel, POSSESSION.

In a world where Thinkers brainwash the population and Rules are not meant to be broken, fifteen-year-old Violet Schoenfeld does a hell of a job shattering them to pieces.

After committing her eighth crime (walking in the park after dark with a boy, gasp!), Vi is taken to the Green, a group of Thinkers who control the Goodgrounds. She’s found unrehabilitatable (yeah, she doesn’t think it’s a word either) and exiled to the Badlands—until she demonstrates her brainwashing abilities. That earns her a one-way trip to appear before the Association of Directors.

Yeah, right. Like that’s gonna happen. She busts out of prison with sexy Bad boy Jag Barque, who also has no intention of fulfilling his lame sentence.

Dodging Greenies and hovercopters, dealing with absent-father issues, and coming to terms with feelings for an ex-boyfriend—and Jag as a possible new one—leave Vi little time for much else. Which is too damn bad, because she’s more important than she realizes. When secrets about her “dead” sister and not-so-missing father hit the fan, Vi must make a choice: control or be controlled.

A dystopian novel for young adults, POSSESSION is complete at 75,000 words. Fans of Michael Grant’s GONE and Suzanne Collins’ THE HUNGER GAMES will enjoy similar elements, and a strong teen voice.

I am an elementary school teacher by day and a contributing author to the QueryTracker blog by night. If you would like to consider POSSESSION, I’d be happy to forward the complete manuscript to you. I have included the first ten pages of the manuscript in the body of this email.

Thank you for your time,

Elana Johnson