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 one of my buddies from the Book Pregnant blog, author Melanie Thorne. Melanie's debut, HAND ME DOWN, which recently released in paperback. It is the story of fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Reid, who has spent her life protecting her sister, Jaime, from their parents' cruel mistakes. Their father, who'd rather work the system than a job, pours every dollar into his many vices, denying his daughters the shoes and clothing they need. Their mother, once a loving parent, is going through a post-post-adolescent rebellious streak and finds love with a dangerous ex-con. When she chooses starting a new family over raising her first-born girls, Elizabeth and Jaime are separated and forced to rely on the begrudging kindness of increasingly distant relatives.
HAND ME DOWN is an intensely personal story, and you’ve said that most of it is auto-biographical. Was it hard for you to revisit your past to write the novel?
I started writing this book about ten years after my sister and I were forced to leave home, and at that point it was becoming harder and harder NOT to write about my past. The anger and pain I’d tried so hard to ignore kept bubbling up in my mind and in my heart, and my teenage self kept screaming at me, begging me to let her voice be heard now that she had found it, and she was persuasive. There were definitely issues that were difficult to confront and moments that hurt to relive, but writing this book helped me begin to heal and move on. Letting that fourteen-year-old girl inside me tell her story brought both of us some peace.
Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write that weren’t related to your personal journey? Were there any pure Writer’s Fears that held you back?
I think most writers are haunted by a nearly constant fear of not being good enough, and I am no exception. But I think if the drive to write is strong, if you care about your story, you can power through the voices that tell you your writing sucks at least for long enough to get something on the page.
Are you a Planner or Pantster? Is it hard to be a Pantser when so much of your novel is auto-biographical?
I totally started out as a pantser. When I wrote short stories, I had no idea where they would go. Even if they were based in reality—as all of my stories are—I would begin with the truth and see where that led me. Of course, I knew the basic outline of events in Hand Me Down before I started, but I allowed myself the freedom to deviate from the real life scenes if I felt the story demanded it. I knew certain bits of dialogue, certain scenes and actions and interactions were going to take place, but I wasn’t sure how they would all be connected. I guess I’m still mainly a pantser who got lucky in that the prep for Hand Me Down had already been done: I’d lived it. This next book is taking a lot more actual planning, which is something I’m teaching myself to do, and I think I will probably still pants a lot of it even with an outline.
Elizabeth keeps a journal in HAND ME DOWN to help her cope. Did you keep a journal, and if so did you reference it as you wrote the novel?
Yes. I couldn’t talk to anyone about what was going on at home—it was both painful and embarrassing to admit my mother had chosen a sex-offender over her daughters—so I wrote pages and pages in my journals, released all the thoughts I couldn’t express out loud, said all the things I wished I could say to my family. I cried and ranted and screamed in ink, the letters often ragged and huge and tear-spotted. I underlined words like hate and promise and why so hard I ripped the paper. It was necessary for me to cope, too.
As it turned out, it was also incredibly helpful as a reference while I was writing Hand Me Down. I found real-life scenes written in those journals, descriptions of events and interactions with formatted dialogue and gestures, details I would not have remembered. Probably even more important, the journals were a direct portal to my teenage emotions and perspective. While some of it was so ridiculous (and mortifying) to read as an adult, it allowed me to connect to those raw feelings, to truly remember what it felt like to be young and alone and scared.
Who is your agent and how did you get that "Yes!" out of them?
My agent is Trena Keating, of Union Literary, whom I met at a conference back when she was still an editor. When I was researching agents to query, an author friend of mine who’d worked with Trena told me that she had just started her own agency and suggested I query her, so I did. She responded to my email the next day with a request for the full manuscript and about two weeks after I sent it, she wrote back with high praises and an offer of representation. It was one of the best moments of my career.
How long did you query before landing your agent?
Trena was the second agent I queried. I met a different agent a conference and developed the biggest agent crush ever. I spent the next nine months polishing my book with her in mind and I queried her first. She loved the first pages, then requested the full manuscript, but ultimately turned me down. I was crushed, so I went back to work on the book, making it as perfect as I could possibly make it, while I decided who to query next. I did a ton of research and had a list of about six agents I thought would be a good fit when my friend mentioned Trena, and she moved to the top of the list I never ended up using.
Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?
First, make your book as good as you can possibly make it. The two pieces of advice I lived by when polishing my manuscript were: “If you’re not physically nauseous at the sight of your book, you’re not done yet,” and, “Look at the pages that don’t sing, and fix them.” These lines were from agents who said the worst thing you can do is send them a manuscript that isn’t ready. Be patient and really take the time to make your work sing from every sentence.
The second worst thing you can do is send unprofessional, uninformed queries. Do your research. Make sure you are querying agents who represent books similar to yours, and hand tailor each letter for each agent. Check out their client list, and very carefully read their submission policy. It’s like online dating and your query is your first impression. Woo the agent by showing off your book, and then tell them why you want them specifically, not just an agent.
How did it feel the first time you saw your book for sale?
Surreal. Sometimes I still can’t believe I have a book out in the world. I think the first place it was for sale was Amazon, and seeing it there, available for purchase like any other normal book, made me feel like the whole being published thing was really happening. Then seeing this thing I’d written in a bookstore, with my name on the front cover, next to all those other books, next to authors I’d been reading for years...well, that was sort of magical.
How much input do you have on cover art?
I had very little. No one asked me for input; the hardcover image just showed up in my inbox one day, and luckily, I loved it. There were a few small tweaks I asked for, and that was it. With the paperback, I was shown two other options I didn’t like before getting the one that stuck.
What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?
So much of the publishing process surprised me: how far in advance things like the cover and the jacket copy are done, how many phases the book goes through before it’s finally ready for press, how many people at the publishing house work on different aspects of each book, how much work authors have to do to publicize, how rewarding and yet exhausting book tours can be, how so much of this business is luck and timing.
How much of your own marketing do you? Do you have a blog / site / Twitter?
I try to do what I can without forcing myself to do things I don’t enjoy. I’m on Facebook, I have a website and a blog, and I’m on Twitter. I go through phases where I’m more or less active online depending on how I feel and what’s going on.
When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?
Um, what’s a platform again? But seriously, I feel really clueless when it comes to this stuff. I had no online presence before I sold Hand Me Down, so I had to start making those connections pretty late in the game. I’d say if you are someone who loves blogging, loves being online, then go ahead and start building your online presence early. I don’t think there’s any way having that platform already in place can hurt your chances of getting published.
Do you think social media helps build your readership?
Absolutely, though maybe not always directly. It seems that most readers who seek me out on Facebook or Twitter have already heard of Hand Me Down. But I think my connections to and relationships with book bloggers and sellers, industry professionals, and other authors that I’ve cultivated through social media have spread the news of my book much farther than my own relatively small networks, for which I’m incredibly grateful.