Interview with Justina Ireland

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 Justina Ireland, fellow Class of 2k13 member and author of VENGEANCE BOUND. Pitched as The Goddess Test meets Dexter, this edgy, compelling debut is about one teen’s quest for revenge… no matter how far it takes her.

Are you a Planner or Pantser?

Pantser all the way!!! I usually start a story with my opening scene and my final scene in my mind, and then it’s just a matter of getting everyone from A to Z. Of course, I always have a plot breaking point where I panic that everything sucks at about 30,000-40,000 words, and that’s the time I try to attempt some sort of hasty outline…

And then I usually toss it out the window at around 55,000 words.

So yeah, I am a complete and utter pantser.

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

Start to finish varies. It’s usually around two-three months (that includes the breakdown at 30,000-40,000 words). When I have my midpoint break I usually go back to the beginning and start revising, which ends up adding scenes and changing the overall story. If I were a planner I could probably write a completed novel in a little under one and a half to two months, but I’m not. So, three months is usually my drafting time. And that’s for a messy second draft (I revise right after finishing).

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

One at a time, thank you very much. I will write the first 10,000 words of something and then put it to the side to work on later, but when I’m actually drafting it is one book at a time. I like to really immerse myself in a character’s voice.

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

Nope. I was one of those authors who thought the first thing they wrote was going to be BRILLIANT!!! It was only when I got to the soggy middle of my first book that I realized telling a coherent story for 80,000 words is hard. Telling a coherent story that people will actually give two shits about is even harder.

It’s funny, but I have way more anxiety about my writing now than I did in the beginning.

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

Just one. A hot fairy mess called IGNITE. I entered it in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and it got to the semi-finals, but now I realize that manuscript had SOOOOOO many problems. And really, everyone should have a stinky first novel to look back on and think “Wow, glad I got that out of the way first.”

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

Yes, although I usually quit an MS because I lose interest in trying to fix it, not because it was time. I have the attention span of a hamster on crack, so if the story doesn’t come together easily I put it to the side. I might come back to it later, maybe not. 

I have about 15,000 words of maybe six books. So, yeah. I’m a fantastic quitter.

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

My agent is Elana Roth of Red Tree Literary. I queried her the good old fashioned way. At the time she was with another agency, and she passed my query off to another agent who was a better fit. I worked with the other agent for a year or so, and when she quit agenting Elana picked me up.

So, yeah, queries work.

How long did you query before landing your agent?  

I’d been querying off and on for about a year before I got an agent. I’d queried my first book and worked on the second. I really only stopped querying the first book when the second was ready to go out. The first time I went out (with my first book) I sent around seventy or eighty queries, with about a ten percent request rate. The second time I went out I sent thirty or forty queries with a request rate of around twenty-five percent. Even I could tell my second book was vastly superior to the first, and it really showed in my stats.

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

Don’t query until your manuscript rocks. I know so many people query too soon. You shouldn’t even think about querying until you’re on your third or fourth round of revisions. And I mean REAL revisions, not just changing a character’s name. Change things, rework plot points! Delete characters, write new characters! Make your work shine!

It doesn’t matter if you have an amazing query if your MS is shit. And don’t polish just your opening. Work on the entire story. I got quite a few rejections that were basically “Your story fell apart in act two.” No one wants to hear that. Save yourself some grief and make sure the story is amazing before you go out.

And be prepared for rejection, lots of it at every level. Publishing will break your heart.

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

It was kind of “Oh, that’s weird.” I think I was more excited to get my first pass pages (when they put your book in the typeset the final book will have and send it to you as loose pages for correction) than anything else. That was the first time my Word document looked like a book, and it was just really amazing.

How much input do you have on cover art?

None for Vengeance Bound, but my editor for my second book, Promise of Shadows, did ask for input for that cover. I’ve already gotten a rough comp of the cover, and it is amazing. But it could still change.

Remember, cover art isn’t for you as a writer. It’s for marketing your baby to your perceived audience. Big difference. Pretty covers are nice, but publishers would rather have book sales.

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

How many times I’d have to reread my book. It’s exhausting re-reading second-guessing yourself so many times.

How much of your own marketing do you?  

Yup. I have a blog which I rarely update, a tumblr, a website, and a Twitter. I really love Twitter, it appeals to my extrovert personality. I don’t blog unless I really have something to share because I find it boring. Most of my thoughts can be expressed just fine in 140 characters (see earlier comment about short attention span).

Tumblr is fun because of the gifs. I figured out how to make them and now when I get bored I go do that. I’m lame.

I’m not sure I do a whole lot of marketing. But I do like interacting with folks. I really think that’s the point. No one wants to follow a huckster.

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

Meh, I’m not sure you really need to do anything. If you like blogging, blog. If you like Twitter, do that. If you hate social media, make a website and hope for the best.

S&S (my publisher) didn’t tell me to do anything to build a platform. When you’re writing fiction I think you just need to write the best story you can. A compelling idea/story sells itself. A platform will get people interested in you and spread the word about your existence, but if your book sucks it won’t make a lick of difference. Look at Suzanne Collins. She doesn’t have a twitter, tumblr, anything.  I don’t think it’s hurt her sales too much.

I honestly think focusing on having a platform too early is just another distraction from writing. Work on writing. Get good at that. You’ll have plenty of time for all that other noise later.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

Eh. Again, I’m not sure it helps build your readership. I think it’s nice for readers to be able to connect with you in that way if IT’S SOMETHING YOU’RE COMFORTABLE WITH. I can’t stress that enough. If you hate what you’re doing, find some other way to accomplish the same thing. Maybe you don’t like Twitter. So don’t do it. Write a blog instead. Hang out on Facebook. Or just don’t do social media. Crazier things have happened.

Twitter followers don’t always result in book sales. Ditto for blog readers. If you’re doing social media just to try and sell books, you’re doing it wrong.

Just write a great book. Or write a mediocre book with an exciting premise. Either way, if people are interested in your story they’ll buy it/get it from the library. Writing something that makes people sit up and take notice is really the only secret to success.