Lee is a middle grade author and her debut, THE LAST BOY AT ST. EDITH’S, is now available from Aladdin/S&S! She is represented by Bridget Smith of Dunham Literary.
Get the book . . .
Now for Lee’s insight on querying, signing with an agent, going on submission, and being a debut author!
What advice would you give to querying writers?
People say querying is unfair but I think it is the opposite – it’s fair, but brutally so. We all get that same few minutes to pique an agent’s attention. So my first piece of advice is, don’t blow it! Write the best query you can, query agents interested in your category, and follow instructions. Don’t let something small and stupid send you to the bottom of the pile.
My second piece of advice is that like writing, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. And I say this as someone who got her first agent in less than three weeks of querying! But this is a process that takes time for the agents and the editors and so authors need to take that into account too. Keep good records, take any feedback you get seriously, and keep at it. Many authors, myself included, got plenty of rejections before we got an agent or a book deal. Sometimes the difference between getting an agent and not getting one is just mustering up the courage to send out another batch of queries.
Did you ever have a Revise & Resubmit? What should a writer consider when deciding whether or not to take one on?
I actually have a lot of experience with this – the LAST BOY AT ST. EDITH’S transformed from a YA novel to an MG novel because of an R&R. I think one important consideration for an R&R is that the suggestions be real and relatively detailed – not just one line of “maybe make it first person?” and even more importantly, that you as a writer are nodding along as you read what the agent has to say. The changes have to really resonate with you in a meaningful way, or else the revisions won’t work. I think any agent that offers an R&R is doing it seriously, so the author needs to take it equally as seriously. Don’t do an R&R just because you feel like you have to, because an agent asked.
If querying was a long time ago for you, what do you remember most?
It was kind of a long time ago, but I still get a little flutter in my heart when I see an email that has all caps in the subject line. Half the time nowadays they are from someplace like Old Navy having a sale, but I still have that gut reaction.
Had you queried other books before the one that got you your agent?
My first time querying was extremely short. I had an agent two and a half weeks after I sent out my first query. But that book didn’t sell and the agent and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on my next project...and so I was back in the querying trenches again, older and wiser. Despite that, I actually enjoy querying and got a lot of great feedback from a number of agents. I know some people feel like it’s an impersonal process but I’ve had enough personal interactions to make it always positive for me. I always felt like there were people out there rooting for me and my book, not everyone, but enough people to keep me at it. When my book sold, an agent who I had done an R&R with but decided not to sign me actually sent me a note of congratulations. It’s that sort of thing that makes me realize that they really do want authors to succeed, even if sometimes it doesn’t feel that way when you are sending out queries into what seems like an endless void.
Are there any specific questions you’d suggest writers ask an offering agent during “The Call”?
Having had two “calls” in my life I think the best is to first, get a sense of the person and their passion for your book. What do they like about it? Ideally you want an agent who loves your book for the same reasons you do. Next you need to get a sense of working style. That’s pretty hard in a phone call, but by asking questions about how an agent helps with revisions, or their method of bringing a book to editors, you can get a sense of their level of flexibility and their overall professionalism. This is someone who is going to potentially give you some of the best news or the worst news you’ll ever get as a writer. You want it to be someone you feel is on your side 100% whatever happens. I have friends who spend way too much time second-guessing their agents, and I never want to be in that position. I think if you are wary on that first phone call, that’s a big red flag.
How did you know your agent was the right one for you?
There was a very specific moment in the phone call where we were discussing one aspect of the book, and she brought something up she thought should be highlighted, and I said, “yes, like...” (no spoilers, sorry) and I knew we were on the same page about what was important in this book. There is actually a detail in the book that is completely from that first conversation. I remember thinking, “She gets it, she really gets it.”
What is the revision process like between you and your agent?
My current agent and I have a great revision process. She is extremely thorough and she takes a lot of time with everything she does, which sometimes makes me feel bad – I think she works really hard – but the level of detail in her notes makes revision much more collaborative to me. I think we are both people who would prefer no surprises when the revision is handed in.
I also asked her flat out to tell me if she thought a book wasn’t working early on, because unfortunately, with my first agent I felt sometimes like she didn’t want to say that and even more unfortunately, I was at a place where I didn’t want to hear it either and in retrospect I think she knew that. And while my current agent is lovely and kind, she will tell me what she thinks and I know she means it, even if it’s not something I want to hear. Which means I can also trust her when she loves something and thinks it’s great.
Did you have any previous contact with editors that you shared with your agent? For example, from conferences or workshops.
I did, and it was very surprising. I’m not an elevator pitch person, so I’ve never done a pitch session or anything like that. But I ended up sitting at a fun lunch table at NESCBWI with some other authors, plus an agent and an editor, right before my book went on sub. The editor was sitting right next to me and we chatted about all sorts of things – in particular she told me how to get Siri to do funny things on my phone – and then, when the meal was nearly done, she said, “so, tell me about your book.”
I almost had a heart attack.
Luckily my wonderful Pitch Wars mentor was sitting at the same table and saw my face, and jumped in with some nice words about my book while I composed myself enough to give the pitch. And the editor told me to tell my agent to send it to her when we were ready to go on sub. That was a fun email to write to my agent that night back at the hotel!
What do you suggest a writer does while out on submission?
Drink heavily? Sorry, that’s probably inappropriate. But it’s a tough time. I think focusing on other things, whether it be the family you neglected while writing your book or writing another book or your day job or anything else is important. Let your agent do their job. And cultivate patience.
How much contact do you have with your agent when you are out on submission?
It varied. I was not on submission for a very long time with this book because we had interest fairly quickly, and once things started moving they moved very fast. There was a couple of weeks where we emailed at least every day, and a day or two where it was five or six times a day, plus talking on the phone. With my first experience on submission, things took a lot longer, so there was more time in between contact. In my experience, if agents have good news, they don’t wait to tell you, so if they are not contacting you it’s either nothing or bad news. Not that knowing that makes silence any easier to deal with, unfortunately.
Did you know there was interest in the book before you got an offer or was it a surprise?
We knew, because there had been some other murmurs of interest, so my publisher told us that the book was going to the acquisitions meeting. I actually knew the day and time they’d be discussing it. So I spent the whole morning making blueberry jam to keep myself occupied. Even so, the call came earlier than I expected -- I saw that it was my agent on the caller ID and prepared myself for the possibility of anything. But once she said hello, I knew instantly it was good news. She’s normally the most composed person you could ever meet, but she sounded downright giddy just saying her name! (I’m hoping to make her sound that way many more times in the future)
What’s involved in promoting a book?
As someone who felt confident about querying and working with an agent because I’d had previous experience, promotion has been a whole new world to me. I’m not the best at shoving myself at people – it’s just not in my nature, so for me it’s been about finding the right balance. A big boost for me has been being part of my debut group, The Sweet Sixteens. Doing things with other authors feels right to me, and I’m better at promoting other books sometimes than I am my own. I like the feeling that we’re all working together to share news about the great books coming out in 2016. But I’ve also had to come out of my comfort zone a few times, too. I’m lucky that my family and my friends – both writers and non-writers – have been really supportive of my book and eager to spread the word.
What special things do you get to be a part of as a 2016 debut author?
Well, it’s just starting for me, so I think there are going to be a lot of great moments. But I have a few things that stand out, big and small. Picking up my badge at ALA midwinter and getting the “author” ribbon and then going and seeing a pile of ARCs of my book at the S&S booth. Reading to classrooms of kids as part of World Read Aloud Day. And, personally, the excitement of people in my local community and my daughter’s school, which is doing a book club based around my book. All those times when this thing I wrote sitting alone in my house is shared with the world. I don’t think that will ever get old.
What other 2016 debut books have you gotten to read? Did you get to read them early?
I’ve been able to read a number of debut books and quite a few stand out in my mind. A current favorite I keep talking about is THE LAST GREAT ADVENTURE OF THE PB&J SOCIETY, which comes out in April. It’s one of those middle grade stories that has adventure and friendship and real life all mixed together. I remember so much being a kid that age and wanting to try and make the adult world bend to what I thought should happen, so I feel like I know the main character, Annie, and what she’s going through. Plus, it’s hilarious, and part of the reason why I love writing and reading middle grade is the humor. I’m a sucker for funny books with heart, and this is one I can’t recommend enough.
What was it like to see your cover?
It was a thrilling day, one of my favorites before publication (after finding out my book had sold, of course). I had tried not to have pre-conceived notions about what it would look like, but even so it was so different, and so much better, than I ever imagined. The idea that such a wonderful artist drew something so perfect for my book had me smiling for a week.
Thank you, Lee!