Kali is a young adult author and her debut,
SHALLOW GRAVES, is now available from Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins! She is represented by Adriann Ranta at Foundry Literary + Media.
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Insight from Kali on querying, signing with an agent, going on submission, and being a debut author!
What advice would you give to querying writers?
Think long term. If you have many types of manuscripts in progress, look for agents who represent many types of novels. Remember that you are looking for somebody to work for you, in a professional capacity, as honestly and as diligently as they can. You're not looking for a new best friend or a therapist or a cool new social media buddy. There's absolutely nothing wrong with querying new agents who are actively building their lists, but look at the context of how long they've been in the business and where they work. There's also absolutely nothing wrong with querying established agents who have fifty clients more famous than you but, again, pay attention to the context. It will make the inevitable replies--or complete lack of replies--a lot easier to withstand.
And most of all: always be working on your next novel while you are querying your first.
How did you keep track of your queries?
An epic spreadsheet. I had the agents' names, agency, contact info, what they requested (letter, sample pages, etc.), expected response time, the date I sent the query, the date and type of reply I received. And something I learned from submitting short stories to markets: Whenever I sent out one batch of letters, I made sure to have another few names in line so that when I received a pass, I could send out another query right away. I had way more names on my list than I ended up needing, but they sure were well-organized.
Did you ever have a Revise & Resubmit? What should a writer consider when deciding whether or not to take one on?
I did have a few agents indicate they would like to talk about the possibility, but I decided not to do it. The problem both times was that they were asking for changes that would turn my book into something I didn't want it to be. I hadn't realized before I got those letters exactly where the line would be for me. I'm actually a pretty flexible writer when it comes to editorial changes; if somebody suggests a change in a manuscript, I will consider it carefully, from all angles. I'll think about whether I agree with the problem they've identified, then I think about whether I agree the solution they've suggested is the best one.
An extreme example: One agent wanted me to rewrite my exceptionally dark, bleak horror novel into a light-hearted fantasy romp. It sounds outrageous now, and it sounded outrageous then, but I do understand her point of view. She knew how to package and market one kind of book, so she advised me to change my book into that kind of book, even though there was basically no similarity between the book she was imagining and the one I had actually written.
So I guess what I learned is that if an agent asks you to revise and resubmit, what you need to do before you agree is take a step back and think about what they're asking. Will their suggested changes make the story you've written--the book you care so much about--a better version of what you want it to be? Or will those changes transform it into something you never wanted to write?
Are there any specific questions you’d suggest writers ask an offering agent during “The Call”?
Oh, quite a few! The most important thing is to know, before you sit down to talk to a prospective agent, what kind of career you want to have. I know I can seem foolishly optimistic to be thinking about novels of the future when you've only just gotten somebody to notice your first manuscript, but you want an agent who can help you get a start in what will hopefully be a long, fulfilling career.
So you really do need to think about asking questions like: What happens if I decide I want to write books in a completely different market or genre? What if I want to write an adult mystery? A hard sci fi novel? A short story collection? A picture book? What do you do if you hate an author's second book? What do you do if the first one never sells? What happens if I take ten years to write a single book? What happens if I have five other manuscripts just about ready to go?
Don't be shy. You are not going to say the most outrageous thing any agent has ever heard, and you want to know if that person is going to be the right person for any twist or turn your career might take in the future.
How did you know your agent was the right one for you?
I told her that every other agent I'd heard from had said my book was too gruesome and dark to be released into the wild, and asked her if she felt the same, and she said not at all. That's how I knew we were going to work together just fine.
How editorial is your agent? Is it what you expected?
I've worked on four books now with my agent--the first that didn't sell, the second, third, and fourth that did. On each one I've asked for and she's offered a pretty strong degree of editorial feedback. It's often about things like trimming out unnecessary characters or subplots that confuse rather than enhance the story, focusing on the main character's personality and arc, and finessing the tone of the story to make sure it's fantastical when it should be fantastical, fun when it should be fun, dark when it should be dark.
Do you see the feedback from editors?
I did. My agent forwarded the pass emails to me. Some of them contained helpful feedback--comments on the pacing of the first half of the book, for example, are comments that I can work with--and some were less helpful. It can be a bit disheartening to see a lot of editors passing and explaining why, but it's also encouraging to see when editors say, "Not this time, but send me whatever she writes next." That helped keep me motivated working on the next book.
What do you suggest a writer does while out on submission?
Write another book. Write another book. Write another book.
How did you celebrate when you got the news about your book deal?
I made breakfast. It was delicious.
See, when I got the news, I happened to be on vacation in Hawaii with my family. A quick glance at world geography will reveal that Hawaii is several time zones away from New York City. This meant there were a couple of days where my agent was calling me when I was driving around the Big Island without reliable cell service, and I was calling her back long after business hours in New York, and I finally woke up one morning at six a.m. to a "CALL ME IMMEDIATELY" email. That meant I was standing beside a pool overlooking the Pacific Ocean at six a.m. when I got the news. It was all very surreal in a sleep-deprived, pre-coffee kind of way.
I had planned--way back when my first, unsold novel was on submission--to celebrate the event by opening a nice bottle of whiskey I was saving for the occasion, but that whiskey was in Colorado, and I was in Hawaii, so I settled for breakfast first, and some champagne with my family much later in the day.
What is the best thing about being a debut author?
You mean, besides publishing a novel? Because obviously the best thing about being a debut author is PUBLISHING A FREAKIN' NOVEL.
Aside from that, oh, it's a wild roller-coaster of emotions, but it's so much fun too.
What have you learned about being a debut author?
Here is a dark little secret that most people don't seem to know before hand: At some point very early on in the process you are going to be so incredibly sick of talking about your book and yourself that you'll want to go live in a cave until humankind forgets how to read. That stage will likely follow the highest heights of giddy excitement, and it will pass, and eventually you'll settle into a happy medium somewhere between those two extremes, but it's going to happen.
What else are you working on along with all the promotion?
I was revising my second novel right up until the day of my book's release, which was kind of ridiculous but also probably the best possible thing I could be doing. There are so many expectations wrapped up in a debut novel, especially in YA publishing, which has a vaguely creepy obsession with first novels. It's easy to get swept up in it, in all the dark miserable feelings of failure as well as all the castle-in-the-sky dreams of success, and it's easy to forget that what actually matters is the work. Imagining stories and writing them down, and doing it over and over again, for as long as one can plausibly get away with it. Having another book to work on through all the debut madness--a book that has absolutely nothing to do with my first, and is in fact a very different kind of book--helped me focus on what was really important about this step in publishing.
Is there a lot of support among debut authors?
There absolutely is, and I would advise anybody who is feeling a bit lost or overwhelmed by the whole process to find a debut group and cling to them like they're a life raft. Other writers with books coming out the same time as yours are not your enemy. They are not your competition. They are an excellent source of good will and humor and encouragement and commiseration--and, in many case, friendship.