Interview with Sara Zarr

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!

Sara Zarr is the acclaimed author of three novels for young adults: STORY OF A GIRL (National Book Award Finalist),  SWEETHEARTS (Cybil Award Finalist), and ONCE WAS LOST (a Kirkus Best Book of 2009, Utah Book Award winner, INSPY winner). Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Image, Hunger Mountain online, Response, and several anthologies. Sara's newest title, HOW TO SAVE A LIFE, will be available October 18, from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Read my review here.


SAT authors have conquered the query, slain the synopsis and attained the pinnacle of published. How'd they do it? Let's ask 'em!

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

I’m not totally sure what a pantster is, but I’m guessing it has something to do with flying by the seat of one’s pants? I would say I’m somewhere in between. Generally, before I start, I have a sense of an opening image, several major events along the way, and usually an at least vague notion of the ending. What takes longer is getting to know the voice and letting the character(s) surprise me. Those things can cause small or large changes to the rest of the story. But I don’t outline plot point by plot point.

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

Believe it or not, I’ve never taken the time to figure that out. It seems to take me about a year to get a draft I’m not embarrassed to send to my editor. Then the length of the editorial process varies depending on what the problems with the book are, and how easy or difficult they are to solve, and what the time pressure are in terms of the publishing schedule if it’s a contracted book.

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

I used to only be able to do one thing at a time, but I turned 40 last year and though I know that is still young, that coupled with some health issues have given me a greater sense of urgency. There’s a lot I want to accomplish over the span of my career. So now I’m more likely to have a few things simmering on the back burner while I’m working on my primary, deadline-riddled project.

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

I have to overcome fears every time I sit down to write. I don’t have a clear memory of “the first time,” but I know that for the first couple of years I had this sense that I needed permission to do this. From what or whom, I don’t know. It was like I was an interloper into a world where I didn’t belong, and I think for a long time after that I was always seeking some sense of being granted approval by the Powers That Be. Now my fears are more around the story itself: Will I figure this out? When? Will this be a flop or disappointment? Etc.

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

I actually got an agent with my first book, but she was not the right agent for me and it was not the right book. It never sold. I wrote two more unsold books, left that agent, and then it took about two to three years to find another agent. So I had three completed novels before my fourth one, STORY OF A GIRL, was agented and published.

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

Yes. I mean, obviously with those first three books I eventually reached a point where I didn’t have the will or desire or skill to make them work. With Story of a Girl, I had a much more tenacious grip. Something about that story, those characters, compelled me to keep going and figure it out. I think when you reach a point when you don’t have the will anymore, and that feeling sticks (it’s normal to burn out and need to take breaks), it’s time to move on.

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

I’m with Michael Bourret at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. It was a traditional query plus sample chapters. Though I had a friend who was with that agency, I didn’t think to mention her, so it was basically a cold query.

How many queries did you send? 

Talking about my second round of agent-hunting: I don’t remember an exact number. It was a lot. Part of the reason it took three years was that the book was with one particular agent for a total of about a year—I did some revisions for her, and a lot of waiting, before she ultimately passed. But I’d guess all told there were more than ten queries and less than twenty.

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

I got very, very discouraged during that time. I knew STORY OF A GIRL was a good book. I knew I was finally ready. But no one else seemed to be convinced. There were long stretches of despair for me, and being ready to give up. When I started feeling like that, I dealt with it either by sending out a couple of new queries just to believe I was doing something, or by taking a break from even thinking about the whole thing.

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

It was right around Christmas, 2006. The book’s official publication date was in January but I heard it was in stores. I went out with my friend and I think we hit every store in town looking for it. Whenever we found it, I’d pick it up off the shelf and hold it over my head and say kind of loudly, “I wrote this!” I’m not sure it felt “good” so much as strange and wondrous. Surreal. The writing process is so solitary and your reasons for writing a particular story can be so private, and for a first book especially the wait can be so long, and then there it is. And it becomes a different thing from what it is when you’re writing it.

How much input do you have on cover art?

Not a lot. My publisher always asks for and welcomes my feedback. But, they’ve got a whole team of experts in design and in marketing, so mostly I defer to them. I gave more input on the HOW TO SAVE A LIFE cover than on my other three covers combined. In part because it has two narrators, two voices, two arcs, it took awhile to get it just right.

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

The publication process is much more collaborative than I’d realized. I had this idea that I’d turn in a book, my editor would tell me what to change, I’d change it, and then the machine would sort of take over. In fact (at least in my experience), editorial decisions are, in the long run, the author’s call. And from the editor to the copyeditor to the designer and marketing and publicity people, to the teachers and librarians and booksellers and bloggers who are engaged in getting the book to readers...ideally the author is involved or at least aware of what’s going on all through that process, throughout the life of the book.

How much of your own marketing do you?  Do you have a blog / site / Twitter? 

I do have a web site that includes a blog, and I’m on Twitter, and I have a Facebook author page. For me that’s not so much about marketing as being present to what’s going on in the bigger world of publishing and reading. But my blog and my tweets are not heavily marketing-oriented. I share book news when I have it but I also enjoy the connections I have with other writers, readers, publishing people, etc. They are my people, so it’s nice to have those social ties.

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

Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think I know what “platform” means, especially. The most important thing is your writing, your books, and spending as much time and energy as you can and as necessary on craft. I happened to have already had a blog going when my first book came out because I enjoyed it and, as I said, enjoyed “hanging out” with other writers, so I was already there on the fringes. But none of that matters if you don’t have a good book. And if all of that stuff just stresses you out, you can have a perfectly good career without it.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

I don’t know. I think my books help build my readership—that is, people like my books, and talk about them, and yes, word of mouth spreads much more quickly through social media than any other way, and I probably have more readers because of that. But again, the work is the main thing.

For my Followers: Have you noticed a trend in the SAT's? Nearly every author I've interviewed has achieved representation through the query process - hang on tight to those hopes!