Quinn Sosna-Spear On Knowing When To Shelve A Project

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 is Quinn Sosna-Spear author of The Remarkable Inventions of Walter Mortinson, which follows 12-year-old Walter’s travels in the stolen family hearse, through towns where people dress as fish, worship bees, and dig for living rocks, en route to meet the infamous inventor who mentored his father.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

I have never heard the word “Pantster” in my life and I am living for it. On first glance I’m imagining a fierce panther wearing skin-tight Levis frolicking through the . . . jungle? (Is that where panthers live? I’m a writer, not a scientist.) All I know is that she’s a pants-wearing panther prancer and that is absolutely me.

Okay, I’ll stop babbling and actually look it up. *Old People Googling* Ohhh, “One who flies by the seat of their pants.” I’m a little of both. I’ll plan every detail of something, making sure I’ve covered every angle and spackled every crack—and then in the actual moment I inevitably panic and go off the rails. So, I do plan, I just don’t stick to my plans.

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

Similar to my last answer: I am both fast and slow. I’m actually known for writing quickly. On Remarkable Inventions I wrote twenty pages a day, at my fastest. Unfortunately I suffer from many conditions including “I-have-to-make-money disorder,” “Distracted-by-YouTube-enza,” and “I-don’t-feel-capable-so-I’m-going-to -lay-in-a-ball-and-pretend-to-be-a-pillbug-itis.” What I’m trying to say is that it takes a lot longer than it should. I wrote my first draft of Remarkable Inventions in a couple of months. My current book will probably take about six months.

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

Oh, I’m a multi-tasker. Unfortunately that means my tones sometimes get blended and I have trouble finishing anything, but I get too distracted by new ideas to work on one alone.

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

The first time I sat down to write—like really write—was when I was a brass-ovaried teenager who thought I was the second coming of Shakespeare (Spoiler: It turns out I was not). So, not really.

That being said, I have to overcome about a dozen fears every time I sit down to write now, and the list keeps growing. It makes me think about the Dunning-Kruger effect which essentially says that the more you know about a topic, the more you realize how little you know. I’ve come to realize that I’m not nearly as talented or knowledgeable as I would have previously thought, and the more I’m learning, the more I’m realizing how large that gap is. That intimidates me.

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

I didn’t have any, unfortunately. I’m sure I’d be a better writer now if I had. I began as a playwright, went to college for screenwriting, and there I wrote a number of features, one of which I adapted into my first book. So, I don’t have any trunked manuscripts, exactly, but I have plenty of trunked scripts.


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

I have (again, I’m going to count scripts here because I’ve written many more of them). Typically it’s because I came to realize that my concept or structuring was inherently flawed from the beginning. I also just lose interest in concepts. I know it’s time to trash (or at least shelf) a project when it becomes something I’d no longer enjoy as an audience.

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

My agent is John Cusick who is also, maybe, a superhero, or a wizard—ooh!—Or a time traveling alien! (Sorry, I’m just writing a bad fan fiction now.)

I went the traditional querying route. I knew almost nothing about publishing going into it, I made a lot of mistakes, and I was obnoxiously fortunate.

John liked my first draft, which is what I initially sent to him, but had reservations about aspects of the plot. He asked for an R&R, which took me seven million years to write. A few months after that and he signed me.

How long did you query before landing your agent?

Okay, picture this: The year is 2015. I was small bundle of dimpled dough smushed into I Love Lucy pajamas. I had just graduated college, my face was bloated due to the tears of adulthood and Taco Bell drive thru, and I spent all day writing about Japanese robots for about a Canadian penny an hour. This is not a person who should be contacting other people professionally, and yet . . .

My initial understanding of querying was a bad combination of what a professor had told me and my knowledge of film agents (who are an entirely different species than literary agents with entirely different rules). If literary agents are like regal, leaf-nibbling giant sloths, then film agents are land sharks with a constant hunger for blood (or money, or something, again, I’m not a scientist.)

I sent out a wave of sort-of-okay queries. My professor had told me that agents would usually ask for fifty pages so I only had fifty pages written. Then an agent asked me for a full and I was like, “Huh. You sure? Gimme a sec.” I ended up blasting out the rest of the book in two weeks in a haze of tacos and typos. He passed. Which was, you know, the respectable decision.

I then thought I should probably research querying more thoroughly. I took it a lot more seriously, and the first agent I found who I was like—hang on a minute, this guy might be seriously cool—was John.

He asked for a full three months after I queried and an R&R three months after that. I shelved the project for a while and came back to it about a year later. I queried him at the beginning of 2015, he offered late 2016.

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

I had a professor once tell me that you have to get through ninety-nine “nos” before you get one “yes,” and since then I’ve always thought about submissions and applications with that in mind. You need to pay the ninety-nine “no” toll before you get let in. It’s not always exactly that number, but by chipping away you will eventually get through, you know?

Also—think about querying like dating. There are BILLIONS people in the world. Most of them aren’t right for you. You do not want to work with someone who doesn’t “get” your writing, the same way that you don’t want to date someone who doesn’t make you a better person. You just have to find an agent who fits with you. So keep chipping! Or dating! Or something! My metaphors are mediocre, sorry.

How much input do you have on cover art?

I didn’t weigh in much, but that’s for the best. My taste in art falls somewhere between 1980s anime and Doritos Locos Tacos. The cover, on the other hand, turned out absolutely beautiful thanks to the work of the artist Gediminas Pranckevicius.

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

It’s incredibly slow. I am an impatient person and every step takes weeks or months (or years, even). Again, I come from a film background which is a much faster process. I don’t mind the wait, however, because it’s due mostly to the fact that those in publishing take their jobs and their art very seriously. What these teams of people manage to produce is amazing.

How much of your own marketing do you? 

I’m just starting marketing now. I suspect, based on what I’ve talked to other authors about, that I’ll be doing a good portion of it, and I’m prepping for that. I’ve created graphics, I work with outside artists, and I try to abuse my goodwill with family and friends as much as I can. As a totally unknown debut author, my goal right now is just to get my book out there so that teachers, librarians, and parents know it exists and is super great! (Did you hear that teachers, librarians, and parents? So great. Go tell your friends please, I love you.) I mostly do that on Twitter. I probably should have a blog, though, shouldn’t I? Someone would read it, I’m sure.

It’s my dad. That someone is my dad.

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

I mean, the responsible thing to do would be to build it before but, pshhh. Let’s be real. It probably won’t make a huge difference unless you get yourself Twitter/YouTube/MySpace famous before you query or enter submissions. I can’t imagine it hurts, but I would say spend your time making sure your manuscript is as good as it can be before worrying about your platform.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

I’ve heard mixed things from other authors. It would seem to me that it has to help some amount. People seeing your book and recognizing your name must push the sales needle a little bit, but I imagine the quality of your book is far more important. How many books do you buy because you follow someone on Twitter? How many books do you buy because you are a fan of the author’s other work, or read a glowing review, or see an amazing cover at the bookstore complete with a HOUSE WITH CHICKEN LEGS? (Sorry, I recently bought that one because I couldn’t help myself.) I’m sure it helps and gives readers a place to appreciate writers, but I suspect the effect is limited. Then again, ask me in April.