Sarah McGuire On Getting Past "I Suck"

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 Sarah McGuire, author of up the upcoming VALIANT. Sarah loves fairy tales and considers them the best way to step outside of everyday life. They’re the easiest way, at least: her attempt at seven to reach Narnia through her parents’ closet failed. She lives within sight of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, where she teaches high school creative writing and math classes with very interesting word problems.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

Both. Right now, I write fairy tale retellings. I need to have a sense of what’s going to happen, and what parts of the original tales I’ll keep vs. those I’ll change. So before I start writing, I’ll have a page’s worth of scrawl about major plot points and characters. And then, I launch myself towards those points, trusting I’ll find the story as I go. 

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

I suppose it depends on whether you’re talking about a first draft or something a bit more refined. 
I wrote the rough draft of Valiant over a summer. (I’m a teacher- it’s when I had the time to do it!). However, I took a few months to revise Valiant before I sent it out. So the time from when I started writing it to when I signed with my agent was a year. 

And we won’t even discuss how many years I spent on the novel before Valiant, the one that will probably never see the light of day. ☺

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

So far, one at a time. I don’t know how this will be in the future, but so far, I’ve discovered that just about the time I’m having to really dig into the hard revisions on the novel, my mind starts going to the next story. So I’ll be wrestling with a particularly knotty issue, and then I’ll be taunted with lovely, shimmering fragments from the new story. I’ve learned to jot down notes of the ideas, but to keep at my old story. So far, it seems like sometimes the new story does well if I actually let it sit for a while. 

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

Oh good grief, yes! I still do. They normally run along the lines of a really sad grammar exercise, like I’m conjugating the verb ‘to suck’. As in, I suck. You (other writer who I admire) never suck. We (as in every bit of writing I’ve ever attempted) suck. It sucks. You get the idea. 

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

I’m going to combine these two questions, if I may. I trunked one manuscript: another fairy tale retelling. I’d spent four years working hard on it, and for most of that time, I was applying every new bit of writing craft I’d learned. Finally, though, I hit a point when I didn’t know how to make it better, even though I knew it needed to be better. And I just knew it was time to set it aside. (It’s actually a long-ish but cool story that involves opera, of all things. If you’d like to read about it, you can go here.

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

My agent is Tracey Adams. I’d met her at the Nevada SCBWI Mentor Program maybe three years before I queried Valiant (before I wrote Valiant, actually!). We were FB friends and over the years, I had a chance to see how cool a person she was. However, I didn’t really think seriously about querying her till a crit partner suggested it. So when Valiant was ready, I sent a query out to Tracey and another fabulous agent who’d seen pages of Valiant and wanted the manuscript when it was ready. (I should say here that I did NOT shoot Tracey a FB message about the query! I submitted it through her website. And despite the fact that she knew me, her lovely then-assistant read Valiant first. ) 

Anyway, the other agent asked to talk, and suggested a spot-on revision, which I began to work on. Though Tracey had originally shown interest, I didn’t hear from her for a while. But then, after spring break, Tracey emailed and said she was still liking Valiant. She emailed again a little later and asked if we could talk the next day. I pretty much blathered my way through the conversation. It couldn’t have been too bad, however, because Tracey offered representation. And then the other (fabulous!) agent offered representation. 

In the end, I chose Tracey, and it’s been a wonderful relationship. 

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

Keep at it! Don’t give up, but be willing to revise and revisit your work- especially if you’re getting consistent feedback about a certain aspect of it. But, if you’re like me, I’d say don’t let your fear of doing it wrong keep you from the attempt. You’ll make mistakes, but that’s okay. 

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

I have to say that getting the author copies was a pretty amazing experience. (This was after Egmont USA had closed, and I had no idea when (or if!) the author copies would arrive. I came home late one evening after a series of meetings, and was opening a box, thinking it might be a late batch of ARCs. Instead, it was … my book!

I was on my landlady’s front porch, keys in hand (I’d used them to slice open the box). I stood there and, in that mixture of dusk and porchlight, I saw Valiant for the first time. I couldn’t move for a moment. 

I had a whole series of Golum, my-preciousssss, moments when I sat on my sofa a few minutes later and actually held my book. And it had a smell! Did I mention that?? My story had a book-smell and I realized it was actually real. 

So imagine that same reaction when I see Valiant on a bookstore shelf. I still can’t quite believe this is happening. 

How much input do you have on cover art?

Very little. But Egmont, and the wonderful artist Shobhna Patel, did a fabulous job anyway. 

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

I thought I knew this, but it was driven home again and again: the people who create and publish children’s books are an incredible community. I’m ridiculously grateful to be part of it. 

How much of your own marketing do you?  Now that’s a story. I expected that I would do as much marketing as the next debut author. However, when Egmont USA closed, I did a lot of work with Egmont’s Last List, the Egmont authors who banded together to help with each other’s releases. 

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

I may change my mind about this when I’ve had more experience in the industry, but it seems to me that the best platform I can build as a novelist is made of . . . novels. (Platform is a different beast for nonfiction writers.) While I want to be savy– or at least not stupid– about marketing, I think the best way to keep people interested is to write really good books. Lots of them. 

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

To be honest, I don’t think that my tweets have had much to do with building my readership. However, I know that social media helped the reading and writing community rally around Egmont’s Last List. So much of our support came through social media.