500 Queries In 6 Years: Wendy Heard

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 Wendy Heard who was born in San Francisco but has lived most of her life in Los Angeles, which is on fire more than she would honestly prefer. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Studio Art, emphasizing painting, and a Master’s degree in Education. Her debut, Hunting Annabelle, is out now. Her next book, The Kill Club, releases December 17, 2019.

Wendy is a member of Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, and Mystery Writers of America, is a contributor at Crimereads.com, and co-hosts the Unlikeable Female Characters podcast.

Are you a Planner or Pantster? 

I have done it both ways. I started out as a pantser (no plot ensued), then over-plotted a book and lost all my interest in writing it. Now, I do an outline that thinks out all the major Save the Cat beats, but I only do detailed scene planning to the next plot point. Things change so much in the drafting process (something I thought would take 1 chapter takes 1 paragraph, something that I expected to take 1 paragraph takes a whole chapter, etc), so this leaves room for reflection without a bunch of re-planning. 

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

Before being published, I spent a year or two on each book. Now I do a first draft in 4-6 months because of this horrible thing called DEADLINES. So it’s 4-6 months of first draft, 4 months of developmental edits, and 4 months of copy and line edits and done! Usually. 

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

I have come to the point where I can work on projects one right after the other, but I really try to keep only one on my desk at a time. Edit one, turn it in, draft another, turn it in, etc. If I’m in the middle of a draft and I get edits back, I’ll set the draft aside, bust out the edits, then return to the draft.

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

HAHAHAHA.

Yes.

I am one with all the fears.

So, first drafts suck. Characters don’t feel real = I will never get this character feeling real and I am a failure. Plot not working = I will never figure out how to fix this plot and I am a failure. Writer’s block = I will never be able to finish this book and I am a failure. Etc.

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

Six fully completed and edited books were trunked along the way. 

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

Yes. I had a second book that just felt...wrong. I could tell this was the wrong book to follow up Hunting Annabelle. Based on that gut instinct, I shelved it halfway through and switched to what would ultimately be The Kill Club. It was a great decision. There’s nothing wrong with shelving a project that isn’t working, in my opinion.

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

Lauren Spieller with Triada US is my agent, and I absolutely love working with her. I cold queried her with Hunting Annabelle the traditional way, and she found me in her slush!

How long did you query before landing your agent? 

I queried four books over the course of my years in the trenches, totaling about 500 queries sent (way too many). I did a few R&Rs for agents (revise and resubmit). I am SO GLAD those projects didn’t sell. They were not ready. The whole process of querying was a start-and-stop one, but I believe it totaled about 6 years. 

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

So many things I wish I could tell my former self, but the main one is: get comfortable throwing your words away. Write so much that it becomes less sacred. If a project doesn’t get picked up, be willing to move on. It’s not about THIS project, it’s about developing a strong portfolio of work and finding your voice and brand.

One more thing: Study back cover copy. Learn to write loglines and queries. Marketing copy is a huge part of the author gig. I did not know that.

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

Surreal. Terrifying. It’s public now. When someone buys it, it’s theirs. It’s not mine anymore. Strangely, once my debut was out in the world, I felt separated from it. Hunting Annabelle doesn’t feel as much mine as it used to. 

How much input do you have on cover art? 

It’s hard to say because I haven’t had to push back on anything. My cover designer, Kathleen Oudit with Harlequin, knocked it out of the park on both covers, so I don’t know what would happen if I did want to make major changes. They’ve been receptive to small adjustments, but honestly, I’ve been incredibly lucky. I’ve had a number of friends who pushed back quite a bit with their covers and gave detailed edits, and they were always listened to.

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

When you’re querying, you’re an entrepreneur. It’s hard to go from that mindset to working with a publishing house. You have to adjust your entrepreneurism to function within the bureaucracy because there is still a lot to do on your own as an author, but you have to do it in the right way and apply that energy to the right things. You have to learn when to wait and when to act; when to push back and when to hold your tongue; when to ask your agent for help and when to give them space; when to hold off on asking a question because you’re waiting on something else and when to go ahead and ask. It’s fraught with opportunities to fumble an interaction, and publishing is a small world where reputation is king. There is a lot to learn on the business and etiquette side of publishing, and finding mentor authors who are willing to help you navigate is key. I have been lucky to find successful, experienced authors who have been willing to message with me and help me understand things, and I hope to provide that same support to authors who are newer to this than I.

How much of your own marketing do you? 

I would say I am a mediocre marketer. I have social media (Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook). I do my own website and that has been really an important piece of the author thing. I study how other authors run their social media and sites and am always learning. Bookbub is something a lot of my friends are good at and I am not, but learning their ad platform seems quite smart and I plan to explore that this year. I make my own swag (I have an art degree) and I’m doing a preorder campaign for The Kill Club, which I didn’t do last time. I feel like I still have a lot to learn.

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

For me, social media has been for building community. So I started using Twitter long before working with my agent, just because I craved those relationships with other writers. I was lonely! But I also needed to learn about the business and culture of publishing, and Twitter in particular was great for that.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

Maybe to an extent. But I’ve never tried to do this author thing without it, so I have no means of comparison. I think #Bookstagram on Instagram builds a lot of awareness with bloggers and reviewers,  but it’s important not to spam hashtags. But there’s no substitute for booksellers and Amazon algorithms, neither of which I can really control. For some people who have a large platform for other reasons (journalists, celebrities, athletes, etc), I’m sure their social media does help push sales. For normal Joes like me? Maybe a little.

All we can do is write the best books we can, be appreciative of those who help us (what goes around comes around and let us never forget it), and have professional, collaborative relationships with our editors, publicists, reviewers, friends, colleagues, readers… All we can do is our best, and the rest is just the rest.

 

5 Tips for Querying Writers From Ingrid Palmer

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!

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Today's guest for the SAT is Ingrid Palmer, author of All Out of Pretty. She has always had a touch of the pioneer spirit, having once crewed a sailboat through the Georgian Bay, drove sled dogs in Quebec, and went river rafting in Germany.  She has a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and is a graduate of the Denver Publishing Institute.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

I am definitely a Pantser, though I dream of someday mastering the art of outlining a book before I write it. I think it would save a lot of time in revisions.

The way it usually works for me is, I become fascinated by a character or group of characters, have a vague idea of some plot points, and then we all go on an adventure together. When I sit down to write each day, I'm never sure where we're going to end up!

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

Three years for the first manuscript I wrote, nine months for the second (this was my debut--All Out of Pretty), and about a year and a half for the third. That's how long it took me to finish the first complete draft of each one. After that, I put in many months to years revising.

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

It depends. All Out of Pretty is an intense, gritty book, and there were times when I needed a break from all the heavy emotions. On those days, I'd work on a different manuscript, so I ended up writing a good portion of my third book while I drafted All Out of Pretty. In general, though, I try not to stray from my main WIP too much.

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

I had a career as a journalist and I've been writing stories since childhood, so I didn't have a fear of the writing process, per se. But when it came time to let others read my words, the fear factor went through the roof!

Joining my first critique group was terrifying--until I realized I'd found some of my favorite people in the world. I think putting your work out for public consumption/review can be scary, and I don't know if that vulnerable feeling ever fully goes away.

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

I had one trunked book that I put aside before writing All Out of Pretty and finding my agent. But it's only temporarily trunked...it needs work, but I plan to revisit it. I have a deep kinship with those characters and haven't let them go for good.

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

I had to stop revising the first book, the one that's temporarily trunked, because I'd been working on it for too long to be able to see how to successfully reshape it. I knew it was time to move on after I'd queried, gotten some requests and feedback, and still felt kind of stuck. I learned a lot writing that book, though, and all those lessons carried over into subsequent projects.

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

My agent is Shannon Hassan at Marsal Lyon Literary Agency and she's amazing! I found her the old-fashioned way--through the query process. She requested 50 pages, then the full and a description of other projects I was working on, and a few months later she sent an email with the three words that changed my life: "I love it!"

How long did you query before landing your agent?

I did two rounds of queries with All Out of Pretty. The first time around I had about a 30 percent request rate (which was great!) but I wasn't getting offers of representation. After I'd gotten feedback from enough agents to see a pattern, I stopped querying and spent two years revising. When I queried the second time around, I got the request/offer from my agent after a few months.

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

1. Never give up.

2. If you're getting requests but no offers, ask for feedback on what isn't working. I had some great email conversations with agents willing to share their thoughts/advice. I even had one agent (who loved the book but had another that was too similar) contact other agents on my behalf!

3. If you're not getting requests, take another look at your query, synopsis, pitch, and first pages. Have people with fresh eyes read it. Attend a writer's conference and pitch it in person.

4. Don't just send queries and wait. Start a new project. Immediately.

5. Did I mention not giving up?

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

Seeing the book up for preorder felt wonderful but surreal. Seeing the book on the shelf of an actual bookstore was one of the highlights of my life! But the first time I saw my ISBN number, I cried with joy. That was a surprisingly emotional moment.

How much input do you have on cover art?

My publisher and designer came up with the concept, designed it, and then sent it over for feedback. My agent and I proposed trying out a few small changes, and they did. Happily, we all agreed on the final version!

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

This wasn't something I ever thought about before getting published, but one of my favorite parts of the process was working on the Discussion/Curriculum Guide. It was so satisfying to collaborate with my publisher and create questions that analyzed the book's themes as well as my characters and their choices. Amazing!

How much of your own marketing do you do? 

My publicist arranges most events and signings, and she created a marketing plan for the pre-launch initiatives. I handle my own social media sites.

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

I think it's a personal choice. Before I was agented, I started a blog with my critique partners - We Heart YA - that I posted to a handful of times a year and had a Twitter account that I barely used. After I signed the book deal, I became more active on Twitter, created an author Facebook page, added Instagram, and hired the talented Stephanie Mooney to design my author website. It's a challenge to balance the marketing/promoting side of things with the actual writing, but I think it's important to make writing the priority.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

I'm not sure if social media directly affects readership numbers or not (I hope it does!) but either way, it's a supportive community and a great way to build relationships with other writers, readers and book-loving people. That in itself is worth the time and energy.

An Agency Intern Shares Common Query Mistakes

If there's one thing that many aspiring writers have few clues about, it's the submission process. There are good reasons for that; authors aren't exactly encouraged to talk in detail about our own submission experiences, and - just like agent hunting - everyone's story is different. I managed to cobble together a few non-specific questions that some debut authors have agreed to answer (bless them). And so I bring you the submission interview series - Submission Hell - It's True. Yes, it's the SHIT.

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Today's guest for the SHIT (Submission Hell, It's True) is A.M. Rose, author of ROAD TO EUGENICA who is going to take it from here!

So this time we’re doing things a little different. I’m not a literary agent, but I’ve been an intern with an agency for over the past year and have gotten an in-depth look at the slush. I’m here to offer some insight into the things that I’ve seen on the other side of the submission process.

How many queries does your agency receive a day? 

It really varies on day and time of the year, but I’d say on average anywhere from twenty to fifty.

How many requests do you make from those submissions? 

For simplicity, I’ll break this up into batches of ten. Sometimes zero are requested sometimes as many as three. Now how many of those requests turn into offers is even a smaller number. 

Most of the time when we make a request it’s because the query was intriguing, and the opening pages were good. What we see most often is the middle falling apart. So while it’s important to grab attention in those first few chapters, it’s just as important to have a solid story from start to finish. 

What is the most common mistake you see in submissions? 

Not telling us anything about the book. Seriously. Some people will spend the entire query letter talking about their process or why this book is so important to them, and never tell us what the story is about. 

Remember all your query letter has to do is tell us:
Who is your MC?
What do they want? (Goals)
What stands in their way? (Obstacles) 
What happens if they fail? (Stakes)
(Also include your genre, (age group if appropriate) and word count.) 

That’s it.

Another problem we see a lot are people not following submission guidelines. We ask for a synopsis, and it’s amazing how many people don’t include one. And they are important. We want to make sure you have a complete story arc and most of the time if there isn’t one included it results in a rejection even if we liked the pages. Because without the synopsis we aren’t sure if there really is a story.  

Is there anything an author can do to stand out? 

Yes! Don’t try to be clever or funny. Just write a clean query letter. Keep it short and simple. Consider it a business letter, and while you think being different will make you stand out. It does. Just not in the way you want it to. When you read hundreds of letters a week there becomes a rhythm to it and when that rhythm gets broken it’s hard to get back into it.

Are there any particular trope or story lines you see most often? 

We see a lot of God and demon stories. And recently the number of submission with political references has climbed considerably. 

Do some people try to subvert the standard query for something else? What is the strangest thing you've seen?

Yes, this happens more often than you’d think. The photographs are always interesting, but the strangest thing I’ve seen is a person who spent probably about five pages talking about how amazing their book was, and how it already had a screen-play and interest from Hollywood. They went on and on about how they were going to market it, but never once said anything about the book. Not one word. It could have legitimately been the next best thing, but since they never told us anything about it, (and didn’t follow submission guidelines by including their first ten pages and a synopsis) it was an automatic rejection.

You want someone who’s going to champion your work regardless if it’s going to be the next best thing or not. 

Is there anything I can do to make my query letter better? 

Again, yes. Have other people who’ve never read your story before read your query. If it doesn’t make sense to them, it won’t make sense to an agent. Query Shark is a great reference for what to do and what not to do. I also like Agent Query Connect. There you can post your query letter and others will critique it for you. Of course you have to critique in return, but in doing so you’ll get better at seeing what works and doesn’t. 

Do you think having this behind-the-scenes look gave you an advantage when querying your book?

Road to Eugenica actually never went through the full query process. After winning the 2016 PYHIAB contest from the NJRW it was quickly picked up by Entangled. And my next book Not Innocent was also contracted with Entangled without an agent.

However, I do think it’ll help me when I get back on the query train. (Which I’m hoping will be soon.)