Margo Kelly On Deleting 10,000 Words

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 Margo Kelly, author of WHO R U REALLY? which was published by Merit Press in September 2014 and UNLOCKED which was published by Merit Press in October 2016. Margo welcomes opportunities to speak to youth groups, library groups, and book clubs.

Margo loves to be scared … when she’s reading a good book, watching a good movie, or suffering from the hiccups. She enjoys writing thrillers for young adults and hopes her stories give readers the goose bumps or the itchies or the desire to rethink everyday things. Margo is represented by the not-so-scary, but totally awesome, Brianne Johnson of Writers House.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

Writing the first draft of UNLOCKED is what converted me from a “pantster” (just see where the story takes me) to a “plotter” (detailing major plot points in an outline). I was having a blast writing that first draft of UNLOCKED until I wrote myself into a corner. I stopped and brainstormed for days, wondering where I’d gone wrong with the plot. Once I figured it out, I had to delete 10,000 words. TEN THOUSAND words. Deleted.

That turning point in the story happened when Plug and Hannah stopped to watch the firemen at Manny’s house. In the original draft, Hannah was arrested right there. In the final draft, she’s not. And that one change altered the entire outcome of the story. I will always be an outliner from now on. One of my favorite quotes from the story comes from that very scene in the book. Hannah said to Plug in the story: “We just fled the scene of a crime. … What does that make us?” Plug replied, “Determined.” Really, it was me, the author, feeling very determined in that moment to make the story work.

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

I can spew out the initial draft of a story in as little as thirty days, however, it’s messy and unfinished. I never let anyone see that first draft. For me, the real magic happens during revisions, and it takes me nearly a year to revise and polish a story. Somedays I feel like the process takes forever, but I know the extra time makes the story better.

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

I used to only work on one project at a time, because it was too hard to keep all the characters and stories straight in my head; however, recently, I’ve stepped away from one project, because I’ve become quite passionate about another. As soon as this new project is in my agent’s hands, I will go back to the unfinished project. Oh. But. I guess that means I can only work on one project at a time. Ha. 

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

No. The first time I sat down to write a novel, I had no fears because I was clueless. I had no idea there were so many things I did not know. 

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

One. And I still love that story. Maybe someday it will see the light of day. Maybe not.

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

I stepped away from my first manuscript, because I recognized after a gazillion rejections that I needed to start over with a new idea. I took everything I’d learned from the process of writing that first manuscript and everything I’d learned from studying the craft of writing and began again.

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

Brianne Johnson of Writers House is my agent, and I connected with her through the traditional query process. I sent her a query letter along with the first ten pages of the manuscript. She requested the next fifty pages; then the whole manuscript; and then a phone call. During the phone call, we discussed revision options, and I loved her ideas. After working together on the revisions, she offered me a contract.

How long did you query before landing your agent?

I queried for over two years before signing a contract. That time period included querying my first manuscript and my second. My second manuscript, WHO R U REALLY?, is the one that got me an agent.

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

Don’t quit. Rejection is part of the publishing process, but dejection is a choice. Let yourself be disappointed sometimes, but put a time limit on it. Do a day of pajamas, Netflix, and ice cream (or whatever works for you). Then get back to work. Make sure your manuscript is as polished as possible and when you receive feedback from agents or editors, consider the advice carefully and improve your manuscript based on the feedback you’ve received. Then throw yourself back into the querying trenches and keep at it. It takes time to connect with the right agent.

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

Seeing my debut novel in a bookstore for the first time felt like I’d released a breath I’d been holding for years. Huge sigh. Then a fist pump. And then I rearranged the shelving so my book would sit at eye level for the customers. (At the time, I didn’t realize the books were arranged alphabetically, and I’m sure an employee corrected it after I left, but it felt great to see it at eye level.)

How much input do you have on cover art?

Zero. The fabulous Frank Rivera designed both of my book covers. I had final approval on both covers but zero input on their design.

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

Writing can be such a solitary experience, and I was honestly surprised by the sense of community I found with other writers. Fellow writers can provide excellent moral support. One of the best things about the publishing industry is the people. Other writers are going through the same things I am, and being able to discuss issues with them has been a huge blessing in my life. Critique partners, agency siblings, and publishing siblings—these are some of the people with whom I’ve aligned myself. They bolster me up when I’m feeling dejected, and they cheer me on when I’ve received good news.

How much of your own marketing do you?  

I have participated in online book blog tours, contests, giveaways, and local in-person events. The publisher has also done marketing efforts, including sending advance reading copies to industry reviewers and providing giveaways. You can also find me on my site, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Goodreads, or sign up for my email newsletter!

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

It’s important to connect with fellow writers and readers, but it’s also important to focus on the act of writing your novel. So make sure you balance your time appropriately. Of course, if you’re writing nonfiction, you must build your platform before trying to get an agent. With fiction, the size of your platform is not as essential to getting an agent or a publishing deal.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

Maybe. Coming from the business world, I know statistics show that typically someone needs to see something seven times before finally saying yes to it. So if potential readers see me or my books online because of social media, then theoretically, it should increase readership. Maybe.