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 Lish McBride author of funny and creepy Young Adult books such as Hold Me Closer, Necromancer; Necromancing the Stone; Firebug; and Pyromantic. Lish got her BFA in creative writing from Seattle University and her MFA from University of New Orleans. Lish is also currently a bookseller and event host at Third Place Books, a giant thriving indie bookstore just outside of Seattle.
Are you a Planner or Pantster?
I am, at heart, a Pantser. I know certain things I’m aiming for, but I often don’t know a lot of the in between stuff until I let the characters come out to play. That being said, occasionally planning is helpful. I’m doing a full rewrite right now, and we have an outline for that. (It’s a co-written book, so an outline is super helpful.)
How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?
Oh, man. If left to my own devices, I’d probably have a full draft in 2-3 months. That being said, I’m never left to my own devices. Right now I have a day job, two kids—one of whom is three so…yeah. It’s hard to write when someone is screaming at you for snacks and keeps trying to take your laptop. Ha! I also do a lot of freelance stuff, so things have been more molasses-like around here.
Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi tasker?
I’m a multitasker, partially by necessity (those bills aren’t going to pay themselves) and partially because of training. I have an MFA, and while I was getting that I had to write pieces for several classes at once, so I was often working on a story, a screenplay, and then sometimes an essay or my thesis (my first novel) on top of that. I got used to jumping around.
Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?
The very first time? No, because I was in kindergarten and I didn’t know what I was getting into. My picture book, which made zero sense, won the young writers thing my school was doing, which was great, but no one will ever see it. First, because it made no sense, and second because I think it was one of the many things that my mother still had of mine that hurricane Katrina ate.
When I started my first novel there wasn’t any fear because my first novel was my thesis to graduate my MFA, so I didn’t think it would really go anywhere. Certainly no one was going to read the thing. The pressure wasn’t there.
Now, if you want to talk about when I sat down to write my follow up novel, Necromancing the Stone, then yes. SO MUCH FEAR. People think that when you get published, all of that doubt goes away. For many of us, it seems to double down. You have all of your original doubts, but now you have a fresh crop to go with them. What if that first book was a fluke? What if you can’t write another one? What if everyone hates it? Whatifwhatifwhatitwhatif—until your head explodes.
Suddenly there is pressure and expectations heaped onto your writing, and it’s scary. On top of that, you’re getting constant feedback on the book that just came out. I had to turn off my alerts early and stop reading reviews. If the review was good, I panicked that I wouldn’t be able to repeat my performance. If it was bad, I questioned my skill set. Neither response was helpful to me, so I ignore them now and leave the reviews for the readers.
How many trunked books (if any) did you have before you were agented?
I didn’t have any, which is weird. I actually wish I’d had a few. Some more experience would have been nice, for sure. Hold Me Closer, Necromancer was my first attempt at a novel. It’s not like I’ve escaped the experience, though. I’ve just had to shelve my current YA project. Whether or not it stays trunked forever, we’ll see. It’s super discouraging. I have a nice support system of authors and friends who can help me keep my chin up on the hard days. The people who remind me that I don’t, in fact, want to chuck my laptop and become a goat farmer. Those people are worth their weight in gold, and many of them are readers. Thanks, team!
Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?
I don’t think it’s a permanent quit, but my last YA novel and I are definitely on a break. My agent had to tell me it was time. We just couldn’t get it to a spot where he felt it was ready to send out. It was heart breaking.
Who is your agent and how did you get that "Yes!" out of them?
My agent is Jason Anthony from MMQLIT (Massie & McQuilkin Literary Agents). He’s been my agent from the get-go, and it was a bit of a fluke. I wrote Hold Me Closer, Necromancer as my thesis to graduate my MFA program at the University of New Orleans. My thesis director was pretty suspicious of genre fiction, because her heart belongs to literary fiction. We had to have a lot of discussions about why on earth I wanted to write about zombies. Ha!
Anyway, she mentioned to her agent that I was writing a book and she loved it despite the zombies and werewolves, and she asked if he knew anyone who handled such projects. Her agent passed my draft off to Jason Anthony (my current agent). It was a mess—I would never have sent it out as a proper query. If Jason hadn’t offered to see it knowing it was a really rough draft, I wouldn’t have shown it to anyone. He read it and called me two days later. We had a long discussion about what he loved, but mostly about what needed to be fixed. We spent about three months revising it, and then he sent it out. So not your typical journey. I’ve never actually had to write a query letter. The timeline went from me sending it to Jason about April/May 2008 when I was about to graduate to selling it to Henry Holt in October.
Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?
I know it sounds simple and you’ve likely heard it, but just keep trying. Even though my query process was nonexistent, I’d dealt with plenty of rejection before that. Rejection from MFA programs, rejected short stories, and so on. You have to learn to listen to the feedback you get, discard what doesn’t work, apply what does, revise and just keep trying. If you’re not putting yourself out there, there is zero chance of you getting published. I went to school with some amazingly talented folks. Some of the main reasons I got published before them wasn’t because I was a better writer. It was because I finished a novel first and sent it out. Don’t take the rejections personally. Just keep sending out the best book you can.
How did it feel the first time you saw your book for sale?
Surreal. It still feels that way when I see them on a shelf. It sort of feels like a really long, elaborate practical joke and that someone will eventually yell, “Just kidding!” and take it all away.
How much input do you have on cover art?
Very, very little. They mostly show me mock ups and ask what I think…but I think they just do what they want, really. I’ve been amazingly lucky so far that I’ve been paired with great artists and have had some really stunning covers.
What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?
How very little I knew going in. I didn’t know anything about how writers got paid, how little control we have over a lot of it, basically a lot of ignorance to the business end. I also wasn’t prepared for the stress of book two. So now when friends get published, I congratulate them, take them to lunch, and we have a long talk about what’s coming. It helps to know that you’re not alone.
How much of your own marketing do you?
I do most of it. I’m on my…eighth? Ninth?...publicist, and it’s hard to get any sort of consistency between books when that happens. Also, your publisher is putting out a lot of books in a season, and unless your book is the one they’re really pushing, you basically get lost in the shuffle. So I have a newsletter, twitter, facebook, instagram, Patreon and blog. I make my own bookmarks (which means I pay an artist to design them and then pay to have them printed), buttons, flyers, and stickers. Most writers have to make their own book swag. It’s great when the publisher handles things, because you can’t beat that amazing juggernaut of support, but I’ve learned that I can’t rely on that, either.
When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?
I built it post-agent, because again, hadn’t really planned on sending things out yet. I do think building pre-agent is smart. Going online to connect to other authors and learning about the community is really helpful. (You can also learn about all that tricky business stuff.) I also know that for young adult, publishers do look at that sort of thing. I should have done mine much sooner than I did. Bottom line, though? Book comes first. If you don’t have a good book to send out, it won’t matter how many Twitter followers you have.
Do you think social media helps build your readership?
I do. Social media has helped me meet new readers. It’s also helped me get closer to librarians, teachers, readers and other authors, who help spread the word. On top of that, it helps me let readers know about books, stories or other content that they might not have known about. I know that when I finish a book that I love, I immediately go to the author’s site or social media so I can see what else they’ve done. I also check out their feeds to see if they have any authors or books that they love, because I’m always looking for MOAR, you know? Books forever!