Query.Sign.Submit. - Cinda Williams Chima

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Cinda is the author of numerous fantasy novels for teens of all ages, including the Heir Chronicles and the Seven Realms series. Her most recent book is The Enchanter Heir (Hyperion, 2013.) She is represented by Christopher Schelling at Selectric Artists.

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Connect with and learn more about Cinda . . .

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literary agent and author Now for Cinda’s insight on querying, signing with an agent, and going on submission!

QUERY

What advice would you give to querying writers?

The biggest mistake I see writers make is querying too soon, before the work is really ready. I’m as guilty as anyone. It took me four years (and four books) before I signed with an agent. During that time, I learned to write, and kept going back and revising my books as I sharpened my skills. Ironically, I sold that first book when it was finally ready for prime time. Trying to sell a bad book is like trying to roll a boulder uphill. Focus on the work first.

What are some important things for querying writers to consider when researching agents?

Make sure they’ve actually sold something. I had a “practice agent” who didn’t work out. She wasn’t a crook—she just had a lot of interests besides repping books. The red flags were there, but I was just so excited to be able to say I had an agent that I ignored them. I finally broke it off with her and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

How did you keep track of your queries?

Nowadays, I’d probably use a spreadsheet. Back then, I stored my query letters in a digital folder on my computer and would move them to a different folder when I got a response.

What was your method for querying? Small batches? Query widely? Wait for feedback?

I recommend querying in small batches. That way, if you’re fortunate enough to get feedback, you can evaluate it, and decide whether to make changes before you submit again. However, I wouldn’t wait forever for feedback. I’d signed with an agent and my first book had sold at auction by the time one of the agents I’d queried got back to me. He said no. J

Did you ever have a Revise & Resubmit? What should a writer consider when deciding whether or not to take one on?

I revised for an editor once, when I was unagented. She strung me along for a year, saying she really liked it, but her boss hadn’t had time to read it, etc etc. When I finally got an agent, my agent said “Deal or no deal?” and the editor said “no deal.” It was total heartbreak time. Knowing what I know now, I think it was the best thing that could have happened.

An editor once told me never to make a change that I didn’t believe in—that I couldn’t own. I think that’s good advice. If an editor or agent suggests a change that resonates with you, then go for it. It will improve the book, whether you sign with that person or not.

Had you queried other books before the one that got you your agent?

My first real agent (not the practice agent) was Michelle Wolfson, with Ralph Vicinanza Agency. She actually signed me for an adult fantasy novel, The Star-Marked Warder. She shopped that unsuccessfully for a year. Then we decided to try my YA work. The one she sold was my first novel, The Warrior Heir.

SIGN

Did you sign as a client of a career agent or on a book-by-book basis?

I’ve always signed a career agent. Most agents prefer that—and it’s especially important when you’re writing series.

Once a writer has signed with an agent, what’s the next step?

We had a series of get-to-know-you chats. Michelle asked if there were any publishers I’d already submitted to, and any I was particularly interested in. Because she was new to the business, she got advice from colleagues and put together a submission list. Then she submitted in batches.

How editorial is your agent? Is it what you expected?

None of my agents has been very editorial. Michelle wasn’t from a publishing background, and I was her first client, so she didn’t make many editorial suggestions. By the time I went with my current agent, Christopher Schelling, I was in the middle of a series contract and I was getting plenty of revision feedback straight from my editor! Typically, Christopher will read my drafts before I submit, and make a few suggestions. I believe that he’s more hands-on with some authors—it’s whatever the author needs.

At what point do you share new story ideas with your agent?

I’m terrible at pitching ideas. Whenever I do, my agent or editor tends to say, Hmmm and change the subject. So it helps for me to do some writing. I sold the Seven Realms series based on sixty pages and three paragraphs that supposedly described what happens in each book.

SUBMIT

Do you see the feedback from editors?

It’s been a while since I’ve been on a wide submission, but one of the advantages of having an agent is that you do get more than a form letter response. Editors like to maintain good relationships with agents, and so, typically, an agent gets feedback, often written, sometimes verbal. I still have a file of editor responses.

What do you suggest a writer does while out on submission?

Write the next book. Like I said, I wrote four books before I sold the first one. I just kept writing, reading, attending conferences, trying to get better. And maybe I did.

Did you know there was interest in the book before you got an offer or was it a surprise?

What was surprising was that there were three publishers interested. This was the book that my practice agent couldn’t sell. It was like this crazy dream, and I didn’t want anybody to wake me up.

Once you have a book published, how does submission change for an author?

It depends on what kind of deal you made in the first place. Even if it’s not a two-book deal, most publishing contracts have an option clause so that they have the right to a first look at the author’s next work. That doesn’t mean that you have to sell it there, or that they have to buy it.

Whether selling the next book is easier depends on how your first book did.

How does it work when you’re writing a series? Are both books sold together or does it depend on the success of the first?

If a publisher is excited about the project, or if they’re competing against other publishers, they may go for a two or three-book deal up front. But that’s a risk some publishers aren’t willing to take.

Case in point: The Star-Marked Warder. It was the first novel in a projected three-book series, and each novel was doorstop size. A difficult sell for a debut author.

In my case, even though I’d already written two novels in the Heir series, Hyperion bought just the first one, The Warrior Heir. When that did reasonably well, they bought The Wizard Heir. So I put my other projects aside and wrote The Dragon Heir. It hit the New York Times list, so my agent was able to do a three-book deal on spec for the Seven Realms.

Fun fact: My Seven Realms series is set in the world I created for the Star-Marked Warder, with many of the same characters. I just went back to when the characters were teenagers.

Lesson learned: Unless you’re an established author with a good track record, it’s usually easiest to sell a stand-alone first novel with series potential.

So thrilled to have you join us, Cinda!

See other Query. Sign. Submit. interviews
Read inspiring stories of writers getting agents
Find out about agent-judged contests

Posted January 2014

12 comments:

  1. Great interview, as always. Really good advice!

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  2. Such an awesome interview. And Cinda is one of my favorite authors. I love both of her series and can't wait for her next book to come out.

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  3. Love the questions and the answers! Thank you Dee and Cinda!

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  4. This was so encouraging. I jump the gun on querying too. Thanks for the advice!

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  5. I loved this interview. It had a lot of insight on novels written as a series. Thank you!

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  6. "I wrote four books before I sold the first one." I'm hearing things like this more and more. This is a really good reminder.

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  7. So cool to hear from someone so successful and respected in our field! Thanks, Dee and Cinda!

    -Vicki

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