Query.Sign.Submit. with Paula Stokes

Paula is the author of VENOM, BELLADONNA, and STARLING (writing as Fiona Paul), THE ART OF LAINEY, the e-novella INFINITE REPEAT, and five more books coming from HarperTeen and Tor Teen. She is represented by Jennifer Laughran at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

THE ART OF LAINEY

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literary agent and authorNow for Paula’s insight on querying, signing with an agent, and going on submission!

QUERY

What advice would you give to querying writers?

Stop stressing so much about the query letter. It’s the pasted pages of your manuscript that really matter. If you read through the Queryshark archives or use a query template posted by an agent/former agent like Nathan Bransford and the end result tells what your book is about, that’s probably good enough. Is it great if you can infuse your query with voice or write it in some magical way that makes it stand out from the masses? Sure, that’s awesome. But query writing and novel writing are two totally different skills and a good query writer is not necessarily a good storyteller. It’s more important for the beginning of your manuscript to stand out.

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

Here’s what I was looking for:

  1. An agent who would be honest with me about my manuscript/career/sales/etc. even when it hurt. In essence, someone I could be honest with and trust completely.
  2. An agent with a proven sales record of books in my genre.
  3. An agent who was knowledgeable about the publishing industry, and who had good working relationships with editors at major houses and smaller presses.
  4. An agent who wasn’t extremely editorial. Not that I won’t do all the revision that’s needed, and then some, but I’ve heard stories of authors routinely doing upward of six or seven heavy revisions with their agents before going out on sub. I think that might kill my joy for a book.
  5. An agent who was attentive to me, regardless of my sales status. Someone who was going to respond to emails within a few days and new submissions within a few weeks. Someone who would take the time to answer questions about contracts, foreign rights, etc.

I realize a lot of those things are hard to research before querying, but they’re definitely things I would think about before signing with an agent. And if you’re too scared to ask a potential agent these questions, ask him or her for client email addresses so you can contact other authors for input. (And work on getting less scared—this isn’t a business for the fainthearted).

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

My first two manuscripts are drawer manuscripts and I only queried one agent with each of them—both times I brought my first 5 pages to a conference and an agent full-requested based on the sample. Wow, I’m a total rock star, right? ;-) No, not actually. I learned how to write compelling sentences before I learned how to write a compelling plot, and both of these stories were kindly rejected by the requesting agents, who both told me to keep trying. I was offered a revise/resubmit on the second manuscript, but I knew the story was fundamentally flawed so I opted to write a new book instead. I guess I knew my third book was the charm because I sent it to four agents, including both of the agents who had previously rejected me. I got three full requests and ultimately signed with Jennifer Laughran at Andrea Brown Lit. I think I would have kept subbing in small batches if I’d needed to.

SIGN

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

Jenn is mildly editorial. She doesn’t just send stuff out as is, but she doesn’t send back the manuscript full of margin bubbles or line-edited tracked changes either. Basically she either calls or emails with a short list of issues—plot holes, character inconsistencies, confusing parts, etc.—and tells me to address them or to justify to her why they don’t need to be addressed. Admittedly, this is MY experience with her and I know of people who got no revision notes from her or multiple sets, but generally she describes herself as “not very editorial” and I would agree with this assessment.

Did you have any previous contact with editors that you shared with your agent? For example, from conferences or workshops.

Yes. One editor had seen one of my drawer novels at a conference and one had seen THE ART OF LAINEY and my agent knew about both of these. We opted to send LAINEY to one of the editors but not to the other, mostly because the second editor was at the same publisher I was doing my work-for-hire books through and Jenn felt it could be potentially awkward to have two different editors at the same house when it came to future submissions. That being said, if I had felt really strongly about it or if we hadn’t found a buyer for THE ART OF LAINEY, we might have shown the MS to the second editor at a later point.

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

Oh, such a good question. For me, it really depends. The usual procedure would be to send her a short list of ideas before I even start writing and see which ones appeal to her. I generally have way more ideas than I can write—maybe seven or eight books I’d really like to work on at any given time. So I might send her seven or eight short query letter-length pitches and get her opinion. If she likes some of the ideas that I’m dying to write, I just go ahead and write those and hold off on the other projects. If she isn’t feeling something and I really want to write it, I might turn my paragraph pitch into a short 3-4 page synopsis or else write 10-20 pages and ask her opinion. Once I wrote an entire book without telling her, kind of because it was an experimental project I was writing just for fun and I didn’t want anyone to say anything that might dissuade me from finishing it. That project actually sold to Tor Teen as VICARIOUS, but if Jenn had hated it or felt it wasn’t ever going to be submission-worthy, I would have asked for her blessing to turn it into an adult novel or put it out as an indie-published book.

SUBMIT

What is a typical first round like once a writer goes on submission?

Oh, man. It can vary so widely. With the VENOM (work-for-hire) books, those were attached to Paper Lantern Lit, Lauren Oliver’s book development company that was just getting started, so it felt like everyone was dying to work with us. I think VENOM had nine offers or something in the span of a week. THE ART OF LAINEY took a few weeks to be rejected by everyone in the first round and sold a couple of months later in the second round. The most recent project I sold, a duology called VICARIOUS, took about three months to be passed on by people in the first round and then another three months to sell in the second round. One thing I’ve learned from my own and my friends’ experiences--and editors might disagree with me but this is what I’ve seen anecdotally--it seems like debut manuscripts are read and decided upon much more quickly than second contract manuscripts. Which makes sense, if you think about it. A debut author is like a shiny new thoroughbred running its first race—anything can happen.

Do you see the feedback from editors?

My agent is really cool about considering each client’s wish when it comes to this. I don’t need to see generic “not for me” rejections, but I do like to see the editors’ words if there starts to be a pattern. Jenn will cut and paste relevant or helpful notes from editors—whether or not she agrees with their assessment-- so I can see trends. There are certain times when emotionally I’m just like “I don’t want to know” and other times when I’m like “I NEED to know” and I would imagine most authors are similar. She’s really good about working with all of us fragile little bunnies ;-) I never feel like I can’t check in with her, but I generally won’t check in more than once a month. You need to remember that editors’ first priorities are to the books they already bought. In addition to editing those, they’re also attending meetings and conferences, answering author questions, working with design teams and doing a ton of other day-to-day work. No wonder it sometimes takes them weeks or months to get caught up on submissions.

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

Write. More. Books. I wrote THE ART OF LAINEY at the same time I was writing VENOM (as Fiona Paul.) LAINEY went on sub in December of 2011 and sold in early May of 2012. In those five months, I wrote drafts of BELLADONNA and LIARS, INC. In June of 2012, I started writing STARLING and VICARIOUS. Despite keeping up that pace of writing/revising/selling 2+ books a year for four years now, at no point have I ever made more money writing than I made as a full-time nurse. (And when you figure in the hours spent and lack of benefits, I might not have ever made half as much.) Sure, you can plan to sell your first book for six figures, and I know people who that has happened to, but for every one of those people there are at least 200 people who don’t land a huge deal out of the gate. If you want to make a career of this, you should keep moving forward. Bonus: once you have a second book in progress, it will keep you from obsessively worrying about the first book and take some of the pressure off how Book #1 performs.

Thank you, Paula!

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Posted September 2014

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