Kim Ventrella On Waiting To Query Until You've Got Something Good

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 or the SAT (Successful Author Talk) is Kimberly Ventrella, author of THE SKELETON TREE. Kimberly believes that fiction is more true than true, and so she write worlds she wants to live in. Worlds where bad things happen, but also worlds where magic lives and people always find the courage to overcome.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

Currently, I’d say I’m a Planner with the soul of a Pantser. Now that I have to turn in proposals before getting started on a longer project, I’m learning to love the art of outlining, but at heart I think I prefer discovery writing.

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

If we’re talking first drafts, then I have to write those fast, before the idea gets stale. So, anywhere from 10 days to a month on average; Skeleton Tree took two weeks. I usually don’t start a first draft, though, until I’ve already gone through a string of failed ideas. After I finish the draft, the self-editing and official editing process usually takes about a year.

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

I tend to start a bunch of projects that I scrap before I get to one I really like. I wish I had a more straightforward process, but I’ve had to accept that this is just how I write.

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

Novels always seemed like these magical, completely inexplicable creations that I could in no way conceptualize or hope to create. Then, the longer I was writing, the more I began to see how you could put one together piece by piece. It was a long process, though, in terms of demystifying the novel. And, of course, I still pick up books all the time and think, okay, I have no idea how this author did what they did and I could never hope to achieve it. I think that’s good, because it challenges us as writers to be constantly honing and improving our craft.

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

Only before I was agented, ha! How many zeroes are in a trillion? No, for reals, I would say about six or seven. Since then, I probably have another four or five.

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

Ha, another funny question! Have I ever quit on a manuscript? Let me see, yes! In fact, certain people (i.e. my agent) might say I quit way too easily. It goes back to my trial and error method of writing books. If one story isn’t working, I’m more than happy to move on to the next one, and the next one and the one after that. I’m sure (read: hopeful) that this will evolve as I grow and change as a writer, but it’s worked for me so far.

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

My agent is the indomitable Brianne Johnson of Writers House. I read in her Publishers Marketplace listing that she loves Roald Dahl and other creepy, dark middle grade novels, and I was hooked. I’d say my secret to landing my agent was to keep writing. I first queried a novel called QUIMBY. She said it was actually too creepy for her, ☺, but asked if I had anything else. Thankfully, I did!

How long did you query before landing your agent?  

My process was pretty short, but only because I basically didn’t query for the first ten years I was writing. I sent three queries for QUIMBY. Brianne asked me to revise and resubmit, or send her something else I’d written. I sent her SKELETON TREE, and the rest is history.

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

I would say don’t submit until you’ve written what you feel in your heart is a good book. I think, most of the time, you as the writer know in your gut whether or not you’ve achieved what you set out to achieve. If it’s not quite good enough, try again. If it’s the best possible way to tell the story, and you’ve done it to the best of your ability, then find an agent that’s a good match. If they get your writing, if they connect with it emotionally and stylistically, then it’s likely you’ll make an awesome team.

How much input do you have on cover art?

I loved Scholastic’s choice of artist for SKELETON TREE, and I was definitely given the opportunity to respond with my ideas for the cover. It was a big learning experience for me, because the Sales team brought up factors that I would have never considered, and they helped me appreciate and understand the choices that were made. In the end, Lisa Perrin created a beautiful cover, and I’m so happy that I discovered her as an artist (I’ve already ordered some of her other artwork for my apartment).

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

Early on in the design discussions, I had suggested making SKELETON TREE into a flipbook (i.e. when you flip the corner, you see a moving picture). My editor, Mallory Kass, actually made that happen! Now, when you flip the pages of the finished version, you will see a skeleton walking by and waving at you. I was so happy and surprised by Mallory’s persistence and belief in my idea.

How much of your own marketing do you?  

Scholastic is amazing at reaching the school and library markets, and I really couldn’t ask for more in terms of marketing. You can find me online on my site, Twitter, and Instagram.

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

I think the most important thing is to write a compelling book that readers will connect with emotionally. I also heard some awesome advice from author Ally Carter at a recent conference. She said the single best thing you can do to promote your first book is to write your second. I totally agree!

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

For middle grade authors, I think social media is especially great for connecting with librarians and educators.