Guest post by Sara J. Henry

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I asked author Sara J. Henry to write a guest post for this blog on how I managed to get an agent (she had to write it because, had I written these things, I really would have come across as being totally self-centred and big-headed. Which I'm not, honest.)

So she's written a bit of a theoretical Q & A of things you might have been wondering. Or not. It depends how inquisitive a person you are. But after you've read this, you should definitely head over to her blog where she says more lovely things about me and my book.

Okay, I think I'm getting a bit longwinded with the intro. Here's her post:


Here are the questions I figure you're dying to ask:

How did Steph get "discovered"? She set up a quirky, entertaining, and well-written blog. That's what brought me to her door and why I beta read her novel and steered her to agents. One of the things that drew me in was a funny photo of Steph standing on one leg in a boat on a yard, a photo that's now gone. (I have learned that teens redecorate their blogs frequently.) Her posts "20 Things to Say" and "A Complete History of My Writing Failures" were phenomenally well written and told me much about her and where she was with her writing.

And who the heck are you? Just another writer. My agent quest was in May and, like Steph, I had multiple offers and signed quickly, and my novel sold at the end of July. So I know a few agents. And because I've edited many books and read a zillion more, I have a sense of story and a knack for critique.

How did you find Steph's blog? Sheer chance and some cross-linking. I stumbled across her blog while reading YA blog reviews of DUST OF 100 DOGS, a book I adore. I was amazed at the enthusiasm of teen and young-adult readers and writers - although I didn't actually form the master plan of I will help Steph get an agent and she will be so grateful she will promote the heck out of my novel when it comes out. Not quite that prescient.

What about Steph's book made you suggest she approach agents? It was really, really good - sheer magic in parts. I read a lot of manuscripts, for friends and for members of an online writing group, but none excited me like this. Many manuscripts start out well and fall down in the middle, but this one didn't (okay, maybe the last half chapter, but Steph quickly realized that). It wasn't perfect, but the parts that were good were so good I had no doubt she could fix the weaker parts. It was also one of the cleanest manuscripts I'd seen, with very few typos or other errors.

What did your beta-reading involve? Many, many comments. When I read Steph's novel, I not only told her everything that didn't work for me (at one point I believe I said This is rubbish!) but also told her what did work. And perhaps because of all the not-nice things I said, she believed the good stuff. I made comments like
  • This is dragging here – too much info too early.
  • I think you can tighten this scene
  • HUH? Why such a strange reaction?
  • Uh, this is a little creepy.
  • Holy crap, what does hot chocolate cost over there!?
  • Would like to see her expression or posture here.
  • And this sounds really lame! Like a third-grader would say!
  • Oh, blah blah blah! MC, give it a rest! What a bore! DELETE!
  • Sort of a bland and colorless statement
  • Achh! Don’t ever have a guy “breathe” words. Heck, don’t have a girl breathe them unless you’re writing a romance.
    You can see I don't mince words. But these are all minor things, easily fixed. I made a pacing suggestion, marked scenes I thought needed work, and raised questions about one plot point. But nowhere did I tell her what to do (okay, other than one DELETE). It was her story to tell.

    How much did she revise the manuscript? I have no idea. Which I think is great. I made my suggestions and Steph decided which to pay attention to and which not. She revised within three days, and sent the manuscript off to the agents. Steph has a strong sense of story and knows what works for her characters and what doesn't. She knew, for instance, to shrug off some of the comments made by readers at the Secret Agent blog, because they didn't make sense for her story.

    What's this whole Secret Agent thing? It's a contest that forces an agent to read your first page. A woman called Authoress (Americans have a penchant for secret identities) runs a monthly contest where an unnamed agent comments on the first 250 words of 50 entrants. Then the agent's identity is revealed and one or more writers asked to send partials or fulls. I mentioned the contest to Steph, who planned to enter. But you had to enter dead-on at noon here, which was 2 am in Australia, so near submission time I asked if I should submit her entry (perfectly legal). No answer. Steph was out of town with intermittent internet access. So I crossed my fingers and sent in her entry, wondering uneasily if I were stepping over an invisible mentor line into horrid pushiness - but Steph was fine with it. And then the agent requested a full, and ended up being the agent Steph chose. Sometimes you have to take a chance.

    Are people going to be upset Steph got an agent so quickly? Yes, some will - including some who have been querying for years without success and some who haven't gotten around to querying. But many people write terrible query letters, and many write a novel and think it's wonderful (and their friends tell them so) and don't revise it. Steph's book is good because it's good, not because she is 15. And she did a lot of things right:
  • She built a "platform" by starting a blog and gathering followers.
  • She wrote a riveting manuscript with a strong voice, and edited it.
  • She solicited beta readers.
  • She handled criticism well, and revised quickly.
  • She wrote a strong query letter with a succinct description of her novel.
  • She took prompt advantage of the suggestion to introduce her to agents.
  • And she did her research and carefully considered each of the three agents before deciding which was best for her and her novel.

    What's your advice for writers? Read, write, revise. The last is the most important. And revision can be very, very hard. I've seen more than one writer come very close and stop because they weren't willing to dig deep and do the difficult work of revision. (I've also seen some writers make their work worse by revising - so I'll add: Find your voice and stick to it.) Get beta readers and learn which to listen to and which not. And never forget that you write because you love it.

    Sara J. Henry is the author of LEARNING TO SWIM, a suspense novel being published by Shaye Areheart Books in fall 2010, with its sequel the following year. She blogs at Sara in Vermont and is @SaraJHenry on twitter.
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