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.

 

Jennifer Pullen on Chapbooks, University Publishing & Academic Publishing

Today’s guest for the SAT is Jennifer Pullen, who received her BA from Whitworth University, her MFA from Eastern Washington University, and her PhD from Ohio University. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in journals and anthologies including: Cleaver, Phantom Drift Limited, Clockhouse, Off the Coast, Prick of the Spindle, Behind the Mask (Meerkat Press), Lunch Ticket, and F(r)iction. Her chapbook of feminist retellings of Greek myths, A Bead of Amber On Her Tongue, won the fabulist fiction contest from Omnidawn press. She grew up running wild in the forests of Washington State, but is now an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Ohio Northern University.

Are you a Planner or Pantser?

Both, I think. I have plans for novels, I tend to know the beginning, some high points, and the end. But the in-between is mushy. Although for my current novel that I am working on with my agent, after I wrote an initial draft, we made an outline together for the revisions, which was really helpful, and I think I will start with one next time, even if it doesn’t survive the first engagement with drafting, as it were. 

With short stories I tend to just have an image, or a scene, which acts as a seed, and then it grows organically. So, definitely a Panster with stories, and a half Pantser, half Planner with novels (What is half a Panster? Shorts?  Lol).

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

First draft takes about a year. Mostly because during the academic year, I am also a Professor, so I my writing time gets condensed to two days a week. After that, how long revisions take depends on how complicated the book is. My current novel is big beautiful doorstopper, so it is pretty time consuming. 

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

I am a multi-tasker by necessity, since I have so many different types of writing obligations due to my dual profession. Left to my own devises, I’d probably only do one project at a time, since I tend to mono-focus if I am able. So, right now, I am writing and researching a proposal for a textbook on fantasy writing, writing a book chapter for a scholarly book, revising a novel…and some other stuff.

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

Oh goodness, I don’t actually remember the first time I sat down to write. As a small child, before I could write, I used to dictate stories to my parents and make them write them down (thanks / sorry Mom and Dad). As soon as I could write I was scribbling away in notebooks. The first time I tried to write for a public audience I was 12, and reading Star Wars fanfiction on TheForce.net, and decided I wanted to participate. That inaugurated about six years of sitting down essentially every day to write fanfiction for two hours (5 to 7 pm). I know I was nervous the first time, nervous no one would like what I wrote, that my feelings of being a storyteller were some sort of illusion, something that lived only in my mind. It was a delight to realize that people wanted to read what I wrote. I think that experience hooked me forever.

After that, it was a matter of learning new audiences and new modes. Learning how to write short stories for my creative writing workshops in undergrad, then learning the mores and expectations of my MFA program, and so on and so forth. But my desire to tell stories has trumped my nervousness ever since that first time, as a twelve-year-old, I decided to throw my words out into the nerdy fan-fiction internet world of the 1990s.  

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

About five, if you count every book I wrote since I started college in 2004. There were about four novels in there and then the short story collection I wrote for my MFA thesis, which isn’t awful, but it doesn’t really resemble the way I write now. I got an agent from the short story collection that came out of my PhD. So, five manuscripts, and 14 years. 

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

Oh yes. If a book isn’t really clicking by page 100, I know it is time to quit. Basically, if I feel like the characters aren’t speaking to me yet, and I don’t even want to know what happens next by page 100, I declare it dead. 

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

My agent is Jeff Kleinman at Folio Literary Management. He is fantastic! I queried about three agents, sporadically over a period of years, before getting my agent. AWP started a program the year it was in Tampa where members could submit a query letter to a submission system, and three different literary agencies were going to read through all the queries, and if any agents were interested based upon your query, they would contact you. Jeff contacted me, we met, and I signed a contract.

It was a great day! When I came to the meeting, Jeff was already ready to sign me, which was incredibly flattering. My query letter resonated with him, due to his personal interesting the focus of my short story collection, which is feminist retellings of Greek myths, and some fairy tales. The sample story in my query letter submission packet was a retelling of the story of Persephone, which Jeff loved. I think, in many respects, it was a lot like submitting stories to magazines. If the right person reads your query letter and sample chapter, the door will open. 

How long did you query before landing your agent? 

3 queries over about 5 years, and then the query letter I sent to the AWP Writer to Agent program, as described above. 

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

Be distinctive. My query letter worked because I made my work, my vision, and who I am, sound interesting, sound different from the crowd. Also, even it takes time, you are just trying until the right person reads your query, and it resonates with them.

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

 Unbelievable. I cried. It was the product of so many years of longing. My chapbook, A Bead of Amber on Her Tongue, from Omnidawn Press, just came out this April. It still feels surreal.

How much input do you have on cover art?

A lot actually. But that is because everyone at Omnidawn is really really nice, and it is a small press. They gave me a form about aesthetics to fill out and asked me for sample images. In the end, I ended up with the cover of my dreams. It is an image by Stephanie Law, and artist I have loved since I was very young. She used to do covers for Cricket magazine, which I adored as a kid, and now is a really respected artist. So, having a painting by her as my cover is a dream come true. However, I know the degree of input I had was unusual.

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

I was surprised by how much talking about the cover really helped me clarify, in a short concise way, the vision of the book. I was also pleasantly surprised by how much input I got.  

How much of your own marketing do you? 

I do have Twitter. I started it before I got published, during graduate school. But, I am really at the start of this process. Jeff told me to mostly worry about it after we finish the novel, and he sells it. But I have set up some of my own readings for my chapbook, etc. which Omnidawn will then publicize. I am actually doing a reading in Perrysburg OH at Gathering Volumes June 16th. And another reading at Auntie’s Books in Spokane WA July 26th. Who knows what my answer to this question will be later, once my novel is out in the world?  

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

I think that depends. The people who are buying my chapbook are people who I have gotten to know organically over time being in the academic creative writing world. I have a vast network of people I know well or distantly, who I have met at conferences and readings all over the country. That is the product of seven years of graduate school. I also have seven years’ worth of students, who I know have been buying A Bead of Amber on Her Tongue. However, I think this is particular to being both an academic, and writer. I do believe though, that regardless, one must be a writer first. Meaning, don’t be so focused on your platform, that you don’t actually write the book. I have known people that that has happened to.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

Only insofar as it is related to my network of professional peers. However, I know it has been more crucial for others, and may very well be more crucial for me in the future.

 

The Saturday Slash

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Don't be afraid to ask for help with the most critical first step of your writing journey - the query.

I’ve been blogging since 2011 and have critiqued over 200 queries here on the blog using my Hatchet of Death. This is how I edit myself, it is how I edit others. If you think you want to play with me and my hatchet, shoot me an email.

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The boys of Asotin are dying. Great hook!

The golden boy, the popular boy, the loner boy––one by one, they’re being found dead in the small Washington town. At first, their deaths are ruled accidental: nothing more than >dumb boys doing dumb things. I'd rephrase to something more like *teens doing risky / dangerous things. You've got an array of descriptors for the boys above, but are all they all actually dumb? But as more of them start dying in increasingly violent fashion, it becomes clear there’s nothing accidental about what’s going on in Asotin.

Athena Briggs knows the boys that are dying. You arleady stated it's a small town, so just knowing them isn't that indicative of an actual relatinoship. As Asotin High’s star wide receiver, she’s competed side-by-side with them her whole life. Are all the boys athletes? Even the loner boy? And as the biggest player in school, she knows most of them off the field, too. Biggest player like her size, or player like with relationships / hearts? With the athletic references that come before, it lends context to the word player, so you might want to use a different one. The first time I read it I thought this meant she was a huge hulk.

Lila Perez also knows the boys that are dying.Again, just knowing them might not need to be stated, I'd go into the how of it right away instead. As the smartest girl in the town, she’s tutored most of them at one point or another. And as someone who can’t ever leave a puzzle unsolved, she wants to know why so many of them are dying.

Athena and Lila haven’t ever crossed paths before.In a small town? And apparently they have a class together? But when an English assignment throws them together, they find out that they have more in common than they first thought––including an interest in the recent deaths, and in each other.

With the local police force completely out of their depth, Athena and Lila take it upon themselves to find out the truth behind the boys’ deaths. Soon, they find themselves emerged in the secret, privileged side of Asotin­­––one that’s far more dangerous than either of them bargained for. It’s up to Athena and Lila to bring the killer to justice, even if the lines between right and wrong aren’t so clear anymore.

IS THERE SOMEWHERE is a YA psychological thriller complete at 65,000 words. It will appeal to fans of Kara Thomas, and ONE OF US IS LYING by Karen McManus.

Overall, this is great. You've got an unlikely female crime-fighting duo, great comp titles and a good setup. Tweak some of your wording here and you're good to go!