Nicole Maggi On Plotting Vs. Pantsing

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 is Nicole Maggi, author of The Twin Willows Trilogy, available from Medallion Press, as well as the forthcoming THE FORGETTING available from Sourcebooks Fire.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

I’m a Pantster by nature, but I’ve made myself become a Planner by practice because it’s way more efficient. Especially when you’re under a deadline. But I like to leave enough out of the planning so that I can still be surprised along the way.

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

Honestly, it’s been different for each book. My first novel (unpublished) took me 6 years to write, because I learned how to write a novel while writing it. My next book (WINTER FALLS, the first in the Twin Willows Trilogy, Medallion Press, 2014) took me 3 years to write, mainly because I Pantsed my way through it and had to do an enormous amount of work on the back-end to make it publishable. My third book, THE FORGETTING (Sourcebooks Fire, 2015), took a year from idea to sale. This was the first book that I fully plotted out before writing, and because of that I wrote the first draft in 4 months, did one edit, sold it, and did only one round of revisions with my editor. I learned that doing all that work up front really pays off in the end. IN THE MOUTH OF THE WOLF and THE BLUE WOODS, the second and third books in the Twin Willows Trilogy, each took about six months to write.

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

I’ve tried so hard to be a multi-tasker, and I’m just not. When I’m writing a novel, I need to give myself over to it. I need to live in that world, and it’s very difficult for me to hop between novel-worlds. That said, I am able to be writing something, and then switch over to doing copy or line edits on another project. That’s happened a lot over the last couple of years; I was editing THE FORGETTING while writing IN THE MOUTH OF THE WOLF, and editing IN THE MOUTH OF THE WOLF while I was writing THE BLUE WOODS. Copy and line edits are such a different mindset from free-writing, so I’m able to jump back and forth.

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

When I first started writing, I think I was pretty fearless, probably because I didn’t realize that I was writing a book, much less a book that I thought would be published (and that one wasn’t). I was pretty blissful, just me and the page. It’s amazing what we can do when no one else is watching. It’s now, when I know that I have an editor and agent and readers to please, that I freeze up. When I sit down knowing that someone else is going to see what I’m writing, I get scared. I just have to give myself a pep talk and tell myself that the only other option is to just not write, and not writing is scarier than writing, so I do it.

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

Well, my first novel got me my agent. It didn’t sell, but it’s still a success story because it landed me my dream agent who is still my agent ten years later. She and I still talk about that book sometimes; just the other day she said how much she’d love to see me go back to it. But it’s not the right time for that book at this particular junction in my career.

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

So, my second book is lying around, half-finished, in a drawer. Okay, it’s on a computer file, but it sounds so much more poetic to say it’s “in a drawer.” I abandoned it after my agent and I attended a conference and we pitched it to a bunch of editors who all said they couldn’t sell it. So my agent and I agreed to set it aside. I was sad to put it away. I loved the main character something fierce and wanted to tell her story. But there were also some other problems with the manuscript. One, I never had an ending for it (one of the side effects of being a Pantster). And two, it was historical fiction and the second half of the book took place at sea, and basically I needed to learn how to sail a 19th-century whaling ship in order to really do it justice. So until some publisher is going to pay for me to spend the summer at Mystic Seaport learning how to sail, it’s going to say in a drawer…er, computer file.

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

My agent is Irene Goodman of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency. She’s been my agent/knight-in-shining-armor for ten years. I have kind of a funny story about how she signed me.

Please don’t hate me…but Irene was the only agent I ever queried. At the time I was writing historical fiction, and I had registered for the Historical Novel Society North American Conference. Irene was attending the conference and in the registration packet was a questionnaire you could fill out if you wanted to get a meeting with her. She was going to read the questionnaires (in which you pitched your book) and decide who she wanted to meet with based on those.

I filled out the questionnaire and sent it off, assuming I would find out if I’d landed a meeting when I got to the conference. This was about two months before the conference.

Now, at this time, I was writing my first book, an epic historical novel whose first draft was 750 pages long. I was in the process of editing it when I registered for the conference, assuming by the time it rolled around, I’d be done. I’d whittled down the draft to 500 pages. The first 250 were in good shape. The second 250 had huge swaths of crap with bracketed text like [SOPHIE DOES SOMETHING HERE].

A few weeks after I sent in my questionnaire, I get an email from Irene Goodman at the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, requesting a synopsis and first 3 chapters. “Well, that’s a good sign,” I thought and sent them off, still assuming I wouldn’t know about the meeting until the conference.

A week later I get another email, requesting the full manuscript.

Well, crap. I panic. My saving grace is that she also says in the email that she’s about to go on vacation for a week, and she won’t get back to me until she returns.

“Great!” I think. I can use the week to edit/rewrite the last 250 pages and send it in then. The week flies by. I put my nose to the grindstone…and I get about 25 pages done. But I figure, she’s an agent, she’s super busy, she’s not going to notice that some dumb writer hasn’t sent her a manuscript yet.

The day after she gets back from her vacation, I get an email saying, “I haven’t seen this manuscript yet. Where is it?”

“Oh my God,” I think. “I’ve pissed off my dream agent before she’s even met me!”

At that point, I emailed her back and copped to a version of the truth: I had 250 pages I could send her, and I was “tweaking” the rest of it. She said fine, send her the 250 pages.

Less than a week later, she called me and offered representation. This all happened before the conference, which is where we wound up meeting for the first time.

And I still have that entire email exchange to prove this story is true.

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

I really do believe that conferences are the best places to meet agents. By meeting them face-to-face, you get to bypass the slush pile. So get yourself out there and attend a conference. Look for a conference that specifically offers one-on-one pitch sessions with agents and editors. One of my favorites is the Surrey International Writers Conference, held every October in Surrey, BC.

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

It was an indescribable feeling. I’d worked so long and hard for that moment, and I’d been through some really rough stuff getting my book published. Seeing it on a bookshelf made that struggle worth it.

How much input do you have on cover art?

Not a lot. And honestly, that wasn’t an issue for me. I’m not a visual person; I think in words. So I wouldn’t know the first thing about designing a cover.

With THE FORGETTING, I was asked for colors, phrases, places, things, etc. that are important in the story. That was actually the first cover of mine that I ever saw. I got the email while I was writing in a coffee shop and started crying. They just nailed it, with that incredible anatomical heart graphic. What I love about that cover is that you can only see the lower half of the girl’s face in shadow, and so it could be either the main character, Georgie, or it could be her heart donor, Jane Doe. They are so entwined in the story, and I love that on the cover it could be either one.  

With WINTER FALLS, I got an email from my editor saying, “You’ll have a cover in a few weeks!” I was so nervous. I was actually having anxiety dreams about it. And then one morning I woke up and checked my email (I live on the West Coast so I often have East Coast emails in my inbox first thing in the morning) and there it was, that snowy falcon staring back at me. I was blown away by its beauty. I love what they did with my Twin Willows Trilogy covers. I love that they chose to focus on the animals. And I love that they look so different than any other cover I’ve ever seen. They really stand out on a bookshelf.

With the last book in the trilogy, we originally had two animals on the cover. I won’t say which two, because it spoils the end of the book. I politely asked if they could remove one of the animals so readers wouldn’t guess the ending, and they did. At that point, I felt comfortable enough to speak up. I’ve been very fortunate with my covers, because I felt that both my publishers totally nailed it. I think sometimes authors feel powerless to say anything, but I do think it’s important to speak up if you really feel your cover doesn’t represent the book inside.

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

Everything moves so s-l-o-w leading up to your debut, and then everything after that goes so fast. I’ve learned that it’s important to stop every once in a while and really breathe it in and enjoy the moment. I’m not good at doing that, but if you don’t, you miss the whole thing.

How much of your own marketing do you?

 I do Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and I’m a member of the Class of 2k14, which group-marketed our 2014 debut books. I also do as many events as I can, because I actually really enjoy doing events. But beyond that I rely on my publishers. 

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

I don’t think it can hurt you to build a platform beforehand, unless you get caught behaving badly online. But I don’t think building a platform should ever take the place of actual writing. If you find you’re spending more time Tweeting than writing your novel, step back.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

I think it can, but you have to be really hooked into what teens are currently doing online. I’m not that savvy. I was at a school visit recently and the kids were asking where they could find me online. “I’m on Twitter!” I said. They looked at me like I had two heads. Teens are not on Twitter anymore. Twitter is now really only for other authors. Teens are on Instagram. But a year from now they’ll be on something else.

That said, I do think it’s important to have an online presence in some capacity so that readers can contact you. There’s nothing so wonderful as getting an email from a reader who loved your book and just wants to tell you so.