Jennifer is a young adult author and her debut, DEVIL AND THE BLUEBIRD, releases from Amulet Books (Abrams) on May 17, 2016! She is represented by Alice Speilburg of Speilburg Literary Agency.
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What resources and websites did you use when querying?
I’m an omnivore when it comes to information collection. If there were places to look, I looked at them. Literary Rambles often compiles great stuff on agents, so it became one of my starting points. Query Tracker is wonderful, especially for a data hound like me. And I used Absolute Write to double check on everyone I queried.
I queried two books, neither of which were my debut, and those experiences took place over a period of three, maybe four, years. I didn’t have a Twitter account with the first book I queried, but I peeked at agent accounts from time to time. By the time I’d written the second book, I already had a sense of which agents I was interested in, and while Twitter was clearly a good way to research agents, I more or less skipped it.
How did you keep track of your queries?
Query Tracker, all the way. I’m more of a small-scraps-of-paper-everywhere kind of person when it comes to managing files on my own.
What helped you get though the query trenches? Inspirational posts? Writer friends? Writing another book?
Friends definitely helped. To be honest, and this is one of those tricks that you’re never supposed to admit, the biggest help was that my husband read all my query responses for me. I have chronic depression, and it makes me a champion at beating myself up. For the querying period, when I had no sense of how my writing would be received and was really struggling with confidence, I made the choice to do something to ease the journey.
I was really lucky because a) I had a partner, b) an incredibly supportive partner, and c) I had other people in my life who also supported my writing. It’s funny to me how shameful it still is to admit cutting that corner. Really, that’s exactly why I am admitting it. I think there’s a lot of insistence about what things writers must do in order to be real writers. The best answer is that you do the things that work for you. Note that this isn’t the same as refusing all editorial guidance or attacking agents online for rejecting your work. It’s about taking breaks from querying if you need them, and being okay with the fact that your process may not look like everyone else’s.
How did you know your agent was the right one for you?
Some of it was gut level. We connected really well in our phone call, and I felt comfortable asking her all sorts of questions. That was important for me, that she let me drive the conversation. I like collaborative relationships, and it was clear she did too.
And she gave the right kinds of answers to my questions. Things like sticking with writers beyond one book if the first didn’t sell. I didn’t think what I wrote were the kinds of books that would sell fast. I wanted to know that I wouldn’t be dropped if we didn’t have a six figure deal after three weeks. She also understood what I was trying to do with the manuscript in hand. She wasn’t looking, for example, to hang onto my voice but reshape the story into a Stephen King knockoff. The suggestions she made resonated as right ones to reach farther into the world I’d made.
What is the revision process like between you and your agent?
The reason that I wanted to know I was comfortable asking her questions in our initial call was because I struggle with challenging people. And part of having a good relationship with an agent who edits your manuscript is being able to disagree. The agreement part, that’s easy. The points where you know in your heart that what you’re hearing isn’t the right solution? That’s so much harder.
With the first novel that we worked on together, the initial edits were light. After a round of submissions, we did another, which involved deepening some motivations. We talked things over, and then she left me to handle the changes in a way that felt organic to the story. I wrote some new scenes, which I ended up loving. She tends to suggest what’s not working for her, but not to give me specific fixes. I work better that way. It ends up feeling like solving puzzles instead of failing exams.
At what point do you share new story ideas with your agent?
We talk about new ideas when I’m thinking about what to do next. Generally those conversations involve strategy, which is one of the great things about having an agent. I’m good at coming up with ideas, and much of the time I’m good at following through on them. What I’m not always good at is thinking of the world outside of my head. Having someone who can discuss whether or not a story about a sentient motorcycle fits well with my particular set of writing skills and/or readership is pretty handy. I do not, however, share new work with her as I’m writing. Having too many cooks in the kitchen makes for a really bland soup, at least in my case.
Do you see the feedback from editors?
Yes, always. Unlike with querying, which felt like a terribly lonely experience, submissions to editors with an agent feels very much like a team effort. If a pass makes me blue, I’m pretty sure it makes my agent blue as well, because I know she’s invested in my book. She shares the comments with me, and we sometimes talk about them. If I’m certain that one response means the book is terrible and will never sell, she gently sets me straight. It’s a good system.
What do you suggest a writer does while out on submission?
Anything that works. Seriously, trying to sell a first novel often means having no clue if editors will like anything about your work, whether you’ll succeed in a week or give up after a year. It simply didn’t work for me to be writing another novel at the same time. I knew that I could sell short stories, so I focused on those, because I needed the confidence (and I love writing short stories). I also spent a lot of time with my kids, and worked on crosswords, and shoveled snow. I tried not to let the waiting eat up my life.
Did you know there was interest in the book before you got an offer or was it a surprise?
It was moderately surprising. Since I’d had another book that didn’t sell, I’d really stepped away from the whole submission process. My agent had mentioned at several different points that there was an editor staying in touch with her, but I didn’t ask for details. The first time it really filtered through all my defenses was when I was raking snow off my parents’ roof. My agent had emailed and mentioned that there was an editor waiting to hear how other people felt and that she (my agent) would be in touch soon. Suddenly, out there in the snow, I started thinking that maybe her cautious comments meant a lot more than I’d thought.
(The complete story of what happened when I got the call can be found here.)
How did you celebrate when you got the news about your book deal?
The usual fun things. Dinner, cake, you know, party stuff. The very best thing was that my friend Christine sent me flowers and chocolates. I live in a rural area, and no one ever just drops by, and I was trying to play things cool because I had a call with the offering editor scheduled later in the week and I didn’t want to say anything to people until I had a contract. But Christine had been there through the whole journey, so I told her immediately. My daughter had a friend over, and there was a knock at the door, and here was this elderly florist delivering flowers and chocolate, and I was pretending that this was something that happened all the time at my house. When I looked at the card—remember, small town, elderly florist—it said, well, things I can’t repeat here without making you second-guess having invited me to answer these questions.
Anyway, my flowers and chocolates and profanity-laced card was a definite a highlight.
What’s involved in promoting a book?
So much writing! I think I’ve accepted all the blog invites that have come my way, and have been very grateful for them. Seriously, bloggers are superstars when it comes to helping debuts find their audiences. So, lots of interviews, some guest posts, lots of tweeting. I suspect life is suddenly going to feel very quiet in another month, after pub date has come and gone.
Have you done any conferences, book festivals, or events as an author? What was it like?
I went to ALA Midwinter in January to do an ARC signing and a luncheon held by my publisher. It was fun, in a wow-people-are-so-nice-and-this-space-is-SO-HUGE-and-full-of-books kind of way. I was incredibly grateful for the giant badges everyone wore, as it made it very easy to spell names correctly! My sole piece of signing advice for authors is either don’t have a long name, or to come up with a shorter version in advance. Also, remembering how to spell it is a plus.
Since then I’ve participated in a panel with three other 2016 debut authors. That was also fun, and in a library, which is where I’d like to be nine times out of ten. I’m an introvert of the highest degree, but these events are not half as scary as they seem beforehand.
What was it like to see your cover?
Pure unadulterated awesome! There’s something a bit terrifying about getting an email containing your first glimpse of your cover. After all, authors, particularly debut authors, don’t have a lot of pull when it comes to what their books look like. I knew Abrams, Amulet’s parent company, had a great design team, and I knew my editor understood my book, but I still opened the file with a certain amount of fear. Fear that vanished as soon as I saw the guitar. Cover art and book design can be such a tremendous gift to an author. It’s like a visit from the book fairy godmother.
Thank you, Jennifer!