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.

Heard.png

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.

 

The Do's and Don'ts of Self-Marketing With Kelly DeVos

  Mindy:             Today's guest is Kelly DeVos, who's work on body positivity has been featured in the New York Times as well as on Vulture, Salon, Bustle and SheKnows. Her debut novel Fat Girl On A Plane - named one of the 50 best summer readings of all time by Reader's Digest Magazine is now available from Harper Collins. Her second book, Day Zero, is coming in 2019 from InkYard Press. Kelly joined me today to talk about the sophomore experience in publishing, the importance of networking, and how not to market yourself.

Ad: 16 year old Alice Burton has a crush on a college guy, but the night he finally notices her, so does her dad's creepy best friend. Wasted Pretty by Jamie Beth Cohen follows Alice as she tries to protect her future, her body and her heart.

Mindy:             You've got your debut, Fat Girl On A Plane behind you. And really often whenever we're talking about anything in the arts, I hear the phrase "sophomore effort" when speaking about an artist's second work and it's usually not used in a complimentary way. So tell listeners a little bit about your publishing experience the second time around. What is different and are the pressures different?

Kelly:               Yeah, so for me anyway, the struggle of the sophomore novel was so, so real. The experience of writing my second book was so different. For Day Zero I wrote four sample chapters and a fairly detailed synopsis and the book sold based on that proposal. So it was my first experience writing and working on something that had already sold. And I found that the writing process, at least for me, was a lot more difficult in the sense that I really did not know if I was working on a good book or a readable book or a book that other people might want to read. I think when you're working on your debut, you know most people get an agent with their debut so they have that sense of validation that comes with like, okay, a gatekeeper has read this and thinks that it's good. But with Day Zero, no one had read it and I was working alone and it just felt emotionally anyway, a lot more difficult.

Mindy:             I know that when I was working on my second book, the pressures were slightly different because of the fact that it was a followup title. I was following up Not A Drop to Drink with not necessarily a sequel, but a companion book. So with you, you are changing over to something entirely different. I want to talk about that a little bit about the genre departure, but I want to ask you more about the whole concept of the "bloom is off the rose" - that debut experiences behind you. Anything that you took with you from that first experience in publishing that you were like, yes, I know to do that this time or I definitely want to make sure I try this.

Kelly:               In my writing process, early on I made basically like every mistake that you can make. So it's hard to kind of like pinpoint and say like, okay, there's the one thing that I'm, I'm not going to do because the reality of it is, I'm probably not going to do a lot of those things. I had improved my writing process. Like I had gotten a lot faster at drafting and editing and so forth in between books. Uh, so I felt like there was a lot of learning there, but I felt like what I really got out of debut experience was I had met a lot of really great writers along the way and I had people to turn to for advice, which I think was what was different from the debut experience where you're still kind of meeting people and kind of finding, you know, your crowd or like the table that you're going to sit at in the lunchroom. So I guess that that's what was different for me.

Mindy:             Yeah, the networking changes entirely and it continues to change. I can tell you two of my closest friends in the writing world are in my debut group and we actually met because we are members of the Class of 2k13 and we've just stayed in touch and we do appearances together and we get together as often as we can. We work together, we talk pretty much every day, at this point, online. It's a lovely experience. I really do feel like through this process of publication, I've definitely found my people.

Kelly:               I feel like I always sound so cheesy, but I'm like make friends, you know? I mean every time people are like, what's your advice for writers? I'm like, make friends, you know, find the people that whose work you like and tell them that you like their work and you know, network in the sense of being an engaged member of the community and you know, get out there and support other writers. Because I feel like ultimately that's what helps you so much. I mean, as you probably know, like a lot of promotional opportunities come from other writers. One of the things that writers get in terms of like going on tour, oftentimes it's like one writer advocates for another. So it really is important to make friends and meet people and find your people.

Mindy:             It's very true and it's one of those situations where networking is a business term, but it's also like fun and friendly. It ends off coming out like it's who you know, but that's not really what we're saying. Just having those connections in those terms of having friends makes a huge difference. Um, so like for example, just a couple of weeks ago, and in fact I think it was just last week, I drove to Pittsburgh and back in one day because Kit Frick was having a launch party for her newest release and she asked me to come. Then I was like, yes, I'll be there. So you know, it was like I had the opportunity to go into an area and a market that I hadn't necessarily been to before and Kit wanted to have another author there beside her in order to launch her new title. And I was like, yeah, I'll totally do that.

Mindy:             So I drove down to Pittsburgh, we did an event together, it went really well. And while I was there, the staff of the bookstore was like, Hey, we've got this event that goes on a citywide event called Bookish in the Burgh. You really should contact the organizers. We would love to have you. Came home, sent the email, the organizers like yes, if you're driving distance you're in. And I'm like, cool. Kit asked me to do this, like as a favor. I said yes. And now I've got a whole event planned for the winter that wouldn't have come about otherwise.

DeVos.png

Kelly:               I think that the important thing is that it's like you make friends, you know? Where I always see people getting kind of derailed, they get on a blog and they get like networking advice, which is oftentimes like go in Facebook groups and post 10,000 things about your book. Go to an authors' meeting and get everyone's email address and then spam them with stuff about your book. Like that's not the same thing as making friends. You know, making friends is about human engagement. Being a member of the community, which is a lot different than just like the way that you would go into a scenario, like a sales person.

Mindy:             Some of the advice that I see sometimes about like go to an author's signing and promote your book to them and it's like, no, don't do that because it's like that's happened to me multiple times. I did at one event where I was presenting and I was actually like doing it for free in order to promote an upcoming event. I showed up and they were like maybe seven people, which is fine. I mean I'm not doing it for myself. I'm doing it to promote this larger event over the weekend and I show up and of the seven people that were there, three of them were self published authors that brought their own books to hand to me to ask me to read.

Kelly:               Oh my gosh.

Mindy:             And I was like, cool, good for you. That's awesome. Self-Publish. Get out there and make those connections. But it's like, you know, I was just handed 12 hours worth of reading material and I tell them, I'm very honest. I'm like, look, I'm not going to have time to read it. If you want to give it to me, I will take it and there is the off chance that it may catch my eye and I'll pick it up and read it. But more than likely this is going to go in the free little library in my hometown and I'm very honest about that. But I'm always like, hey, feel free to email me. I have like a Word document that's like 10 pages long with advice for aspiring writers. Email me, I will send this to you, listen to the podcast, follow the blog. Like I'm happy to help. But when you're in a situation like that, it's like there... I use the word supplicant but I don't mean it in a negative way. I just mean that it's like we're not on an even footing, you know, they're asking me for something. I don't feel like they're, they're wanting to meet me and talk to me. I feel like they want to use me to their own advantage.

Kelly:               Well first of all, like so much love for people that self-publish. Like that's a completely valid authorial choice and it's got the difficulties of you have to do your own marketing.

Mindy:             Absolutely.

Kelly:               There's so much bad advice out there for self published authors. You just know those poor people probably read some articles somewhere that was just like go to an author event and give them a copy of your book so that they can go on their channels and talk about it. And it's kind of like, I mean, I feel really bad about that whole thing because like as you know, just among your writer friends who are publishing, like if you just read every book from writer friends and tried to just keep up on that, it's almost like a full time job.

Mindy:             Yeah.

Kelly:               If you've got somebody who's coming in and they're a stranger to you, it's like, it's a pretty big commitment to say like, okay, I'm going to put somebody that I, that's I really care about as a person on hold so that I can read this thing that like you just handed to me and we don't even know each other.

Mindy:             Right. And that's the thing. I totally agree. I have absolute respect for self published authors. Um, my friends Kate and Demitria, we do indie publishing with anthologies. We put together different anthologies and we know, I mean, I know how much work it is and how hard it is to get noticed and I know what the hustle is like and how very, very small the rewards can be. Asking someone that you don't know to read your book in the hopes of them promoting it for you? It's not the best approach because I mean, like you said, I don't read all of my friends' books like good friends, very good friends. I don't have time to read all of their books. So, no, I'm not going to read a stranger's book.

Mindy: And then also just because of who I am and the way I was raised, I have total guilt about the fact that they handed me a book because I know for a fact that it costs them money to have this book printed. It probably costs them at a minimum 10 to $15 to have it printed. And it's like they're just, they're handing me something they might be able to sell and make money on and they're giving it to me for free. And then I feel awful because I'm like, dude, I, I should read this, but I'm always completely honest. I'm like, more than likely I'm not going to read this. If you want to give it to me, you can. I never refuse anyone, but I'm telling you 99% I, I'm not going to get to this.

Kelly:               That's like a marketing don't

Mindy:             Actually, I do think putting your book in a free little library, if you want to give away a book for free and just see if you can get someone to read it and like it and maybe give you a review. Free little libraries. Man, I love them. When I'm driving through a town and I see a free little library, I have boxes of my books, in my car, I will just stop and sign a book and stick it in there and you know, see what happens. You never know those little ripples can really matter. And so that's what I do when someone hands me a self published book, I put it in a free little library.

Kelly:               Yeah. But the other piece of the puzzle too is that like oftentimes if you haven't done any self publishing, you don't know a lot about it. Like I myself have never done any self publishing and so if people asked me for advice or promotional advice, I really don't know. I mean it's a totally different game in terms of what self published authors can do and you know, because they can do a lot of things that traditionally published authors can't do. Like they can do price promotions on Amazon or advertisements, like the things that we can't do because like we don't actually quote unquote own the distribution channel of our book.

Mindy:             Right.

Kelly:               A lot of times I don't know what a good thing for them to do would be. I really just don't know.

Mindy:             No, I don't either. You're right. It is a completely different animal. It's like asking a ballet dancer to show you how to do break dancing. Like it's, it's the same world where they have a body and they're using it to dance, but that's it.

Kelly:               I will say though, on the marketing don'ts, like also if you go to a conference and they give you a distribution list of everybody's email, do not subscribe those people to your email, your eblast list. I've had probably like three or four people do that to me recently and it's kind of like that is just not the way to market to somebody. I'm not even sure it's, it's a dubious legality actually. If they haven't opted into your communications.

Mindy:             That's very true. They have to actually opt in specifically to your list in order for you to add them.

Mindy:             Coming up, jumping genres, but still remaining true to your author brand.

Mindy:             So let's talk about your new book Day Zero. It is a genre departure from your debut Fat Girl on a Plane. So talk a little bit about Day Zero.

Kelly:               Yeah, so Day Zero is a young adult thriller. It's set in a near future quasi dystopia and follows a teen hacker Jinx Marshall who believes that her father is responsible for triggering a political and economic crisis. So she's pursued by this group of shadowy paramilitary types. And while she's on the run with her step siblings, she tries to learn the truth about her dad.

Mindy:             Why the name Jinx? I'm just curious.

Kelly:               My mom had a friend in high school and that was her name and so she was doing something for her high school reunion or something and she was like, and my friend Jinx will be there. I'm like, Jinx? Her name is Jinx? I'm like, I'm using that. That's going in a book. So, hi to the real Jinx. Hopefully I'll get to meet her.

Mindy:             It's so cool. So it is very much a genre departure. It's very different from your first one, which was a contemporary more about like a culture reflection than anything. So I'm really curious about the audience that you have drawn to yourself with your first book or do you have any concerns about them following over to the second since the topic is so different?

Amy Reed On Letting Go Of Control Once You Are Published

It’s time for a new interview series… like NOW. No really, actually it’s called NOW (Newly Omniscient Authors). This blog has been publishing since 2011, and some of the earlier posts feel dated. To honor the relaunch of the site, I thought I’d invite some of my past guests to read and ruminate on their answers to questions from oh-so-long-ago to see what’s changed between then and now.

Today’s guest is Amy Reed. Her new novel, The Boy and Girl Who Broke the World (July 9, 2019/Simon Pulse) is about two teens from the wrong side of the tracks whose lives crash into each other and start a surreal series of events that may lead to the apocalypse. Amy is a feminist, mother, and Virgo who enjoys running, making lists, and wandering around the mountains of western North Carolina where she lives. You can find her online at amyreedfiction.com. 

Has how you think (and talk) about writing and publishing changed, further into your career?

I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that I have very little control over what happens once my manuscript is out of my hands and turns into a real book, like how much marketing support it will get, how much it will sell, and what kind of praise or criticism it will receive. Writing and publishing is just a long bumpy process of letting go. The less I depend on external validation, the more at peace I am on this crazy ride.

Let’s talk about the balance between the creative versus the business side of the industry. Do you think of yourself as an artiste or are you analyzing every aspect of your story for marketability? Has that changed from your early perspective?

My first couple of books (Beautiful and Clean) felt very authentic to me as an artist (or artiste, I suppose—I was still very much living in the wake of my MFA preciousness), but unfortunately my response to the success of those books was to become a lot more focused on writing what I thought I was supposed to write, what was “on brand,” and writing lost some of its magic. Then my daughter was born and I moved across the country, and something shifted for me.

The Nowhere Girls was about me reclaiming my passion for storytelling, my own voice, and my love for the lives of my characters and readers. My new book The Boy and Girl Who Broke the World (July 9, Simon Pulse) was the most fun I’ve ever had writing because I allowed myself to really play with fantasy and surrealism for the first time. And my next book--which will remain mysterious for now since it hasn’t officially been announced yet—is the weirdest (and maybe best) thing I’ve ever written. 

Amy Reed.png

The bloom is off the rose… what’s faded for you, this far out from debut?

Planning my own book tours. I don’t do that anymore. I pretty much just do one release event at my local indie, and I’ll do local events with friends when invited, and of course whatever my publisher plans for me, but I’d rather put my energy into my writing.

Likewise, is there anything you’ve grown to love (or at least accept) that you never thought you would?

That my books are not for everybody. I write about dark stuff because those are the stories that resonate with me, and they are the ones I needed to read as a teen. But not everybody wants to read those stories, and that’s okay. I have never been a conventional person, and my books are not conventional. And as we evolve, we are both getting even more unconventional.

And lastly, what did getting published mean for you and how has it changed (or not changed!) your life?

For the last six years, I’ve (mostly) been able to write full time, which is a great privilege and gift that I really try to not take for granted. I’ve also made some incredible friends along the way, which has been a lifesaver in this often very solitary profession.