Thursday, November 3, 2011

Agent-Author Chat: Michelle Andelman and Liesl Shurtliff

Hey, look--it’s another installment of “Agent-Author Chat”! (Two interviews in two weeks? I’m on a roll!) Today’s interview features Michelle Andelman of Regal Literary and one of my good friends and critique partners, Liesl Shurtliff.

Here’s a quick reminder about how this will work: Ms. Shurtliff will share her query with us, the actual query she sent to Ms. Andelman, and then she’ll chat a bit about how she developed it and what advice she has for fellow writers. Then Ms. Andelman will tell us what she liked about the query--and the manuscript itself--and share some query-writing tips with us.

Ms. Shurtliff's query and responses will appear in orange, Ms. Andelman's in blue.

Ms. Shurtliff’s Query Rump is a lousy name, but it’s even worse when your name is your destiny. Rump’s destiny really stinks. Because his mother only spoke aloud part of his name before she died, Rump is only part of a person. He is short, skinny, and apparently an idiot, because he thinks the world is round when everyone in the village says it’s flat.

When Rump discovers his mother’s old magic of spinning gold, he thinks his destiny is golden, until the greedy miller manipulates Rump into bringing the gold to him. Only then does Rump realize that the same magic that allows him to spin the gold also binds him to take whatever others will offer him in exchange for the gold. He fears his half-spoken name has something to do with the mess.

Then the miller boasts to the king that his only daughter, Opal, is the one who spins the gold. Rump thinks he’ll be a hero if he helps Opal, but he gets in over his head when Opal makes a foolish bargain: she promises Rump her first-born child. On a quest to be free of the miller’s greed and the binding bargains, Rump learns of rumpel, magic that traps you, and of stiltskins, magic that frees you. He’s got the trapped part down. If only he could find a stiltskin. If only he knew his whole name.

RUMP, a middle-grade retelling of Rumpelstiltskin from his own quirky point-of-view, is complete at 58,000 words. I read that you prefer quirky and charming middle-grade, so I hope this will interest you. I have published stories and articles in Guideposts Sweet 16, Hopscotch for Girls, and The Friend. I review books for Deseret News and I’m an active member of SCBWI since 2008.

Thank you for your time.

KV: Ms. Shurtliff, how did you first come up with the idea for RUMP?

LS: I was actually brainstorming another fairytale when I got the idea. I was thinking about the importance of names and how it would be really interesting to create a fairytale world where a person's name determined their destiny. Instantly my mind gravitated to the Rumpelstiltskin tale, because if there ever was a story where a name was important, it was that one. And because I have a totally immature love of potty humor, I thought it would be funny to shorten his name to Rump. I smiled instantly. What kind of a destiny would someone called Rump have? A totally stinky one! The name and destiny were the seeds of my story and it grew from there. It was a lot of fun!

KV: Tell us a little bit about your query-writing process. Did you work on it here and there as you were writing the manuscript, or before, or after? How many times did you revise it? And how did you decide what order to put things in?

LS: I did write the query here and there as I wrote my manuscript. To me a query is a sort of compass. If you can’t coherently boil down the larger parts of your book in 250 words then it might be an indication that you have a problem with your overall story, like you have no idea what it’s about. So the query helped me stay on track and focused.

I revised my pitch paragraph dozens of times as I revised my novel and got it ready for submission. I often revised what characters and plot points were necessary in the query and tried to make it as clear and tight as possible.

As far as the order, I'm a fairly linear person, so I just started with the beginning and moved until I reached the major tipping point where I hoped an agent would ask to read more.

KV: What was the hardest thing about writing your query? What was the easiest?

LS: I think the hardest thing (or at least most labor intensive) was really personalizing my query to each agents’ particular tastes. There are varying ideas about what makes a good query. Some want you to go right into the pitch, others prefer a bit of introduction. Some want book comparisons, others find that presumptuous. Most want you to end the query with a cliffhanger, but I did find one agent who wanted to know the resolution in the query. Some want no sample page, others want one, five, ten, three chapters, the whole thing plus a synopsis and a bio and the name of your dog.

It's an exhausting amount of research, but I think it's important to show them that you've taken the time to learn about them and give them what they want. Otherwise, how can we expect them to take our work seriously?

The easiest part was writing the first couple of lines. I know this is tooting my own horn, but it still makes me laugh.

KV: Ms. Andelman, when you first read Ms. Shurtliff’s query, what caught your attention?

MA: I was caught by the mix of humor and heart that was evident in the query itself--Liesl did a terrific job of crafting a query letter that demonstrated just how strong and lively a writer she is, and what’s more, a query letter whose tone perfectly captured that of the project.

Rump is a little boy with at once a wise yet humorous perspective. There’s tenderness yet also a bold, laugh-out-loud quality to his voice, and the way he sees both the world and himself. From reading Liesl’s query alone, I was able to sense that about her protagonist--and sense that she’d drive him through a truly extraordinary and emotional character arc, even alongside the adventure she was going to send him on. I only hoped the pages would bear that out! I was so eager to see; truly, I had such genuine fun reading the query that I couldn’t wait to dip into the pages! Liesl says just above that her query made her laugh--me too!

KV: Obviously, the manuscript met--or exceeded--your expectations. What did you love about RUMP?

MA: I’m drawn to fairytale and folktale retellings in theory, but in practice I’m selective about what I take on in this vein. RUMP won me immediately over! The manuscript made it evident how much Liesl loves and knows the fairytale she’s giving a fresh spin, and how much she loves and knows fairytales in general.

RUMP has strong roots in traditional fairytale world building and storytelling. There are sludge-slurping trolls, aunts who are witches, and pixies with gold fever. Yet it also boldly reinvented the wheel, recasting the reviled legendary character of Rumpelstiltskin as a very young boy you can’t help but feel for--and whose humor, magically, even within the context of the traditional fairytale story world Liesl created (one that’s all her own, yet has a timeless feel), felt perfectly contemporary. There’s a bold, irrepressible boy humor in RUMP that called to mind SHREK, which I totally love, and which I feel also--like RUMP--pays homage to fairytale tradition while irreverently dosing it with a humor I loved, and which I think kid readers today will love.

KV: Just have to jump in here and say that I love the Shrek comparison! It’s so apt! And it's so cool to hear what an agent has to say about a manuscript I’ve actually read. Okay, back to the interview…

How quickly did you read Ms. Shurtliff’s manuscript? Is that pretty typical of your response times on requested material, or do those vary?

MA: I just looked back at my records. There were just 14 business days that passed between the day I received Liesl’s full manuscript (I did request the full upfront, after reviewing her paper query with ten pages of writing attached) and the day I wrote to let her know I was in love with RUMP, and wanted to schedule a phone conversation for the next day (during which I offered her representation).

My response times on requested material, admittedly, can vary. I can take longer especially in cases where a full read finds me sitting on the fence, loving elements but not feeling the work’s quite coherent enough yet, so I must think about what specific editorial work I might suggest an author and I do together to get a submission ready for editors’ eyes.

Or I can take longer if I love a full manuscript but worry about its marketability. In that case, sometimes I need to take extra time to decide if I love it enough to commit to it, even if I feel it could be a tough sale. Or, I need to give extra thought as to a placement strategy--that’s my way of shoring up my confidence that I can successfully find a home for it.

Of course, it’s loveliest to read a submitted manuscript and, as I am reading, clearly see what editorial work I’ll recommend and what my placement strategy will be--and, by the end of my read, be feeling that warm & fuzzy “I-am-in-love, I-want-to-represent-this-author, I-know-exactly-which-editors-will-flip-for-this-like-I-have” glow. That’s not the case with every submission I take on--some I love, but need a lot of development; some I love, but raise market questions that I need to answer first; but some come along that, for me, feel like no-brainers. I love it, it’s in great shape, and I know just how I’ll go about placing it. My response time is speedy when that’s the case and that was totally the case with RUMP.

KV: Ms. Shurtliff, what tips do you have for fellow writers as they work on their queries?

LS: Do your homework on both queries and agents. Read as many queries as you can and figure out why they work or don’t work. (I highly recommend Query Shark.) Have a few people read your query who have not read your book to make sure the query makes sense. If you have to explain any point at all, that’s a red flag.

Beyond that, don't obsess over it! Queries are important but your book is more important. Put the big time into the real baby.

KV: Same question to you, Ms. Andelman. What query-writing suggestions do you have?

MA: The best query advice I have is not to query too soon! Give yourself time to get the manuscript right--I think Liesl’s final tip above is totally on-point. There’s no sense in sweating a query for a book that isn’t as ready--as developed, as polished--as you are able to get it.

That said, once you’re ready, I recommend drafting a concise query that doesn’t summarize the plot in step-by-step fashion but instead moves us through your story’s major movements and gives us a sense for how your characters arc. It’s so important, I think, to highlight in a query an emotional throughline for your story or protagonist--really, I don’t see enough queries that do. It’s the emotional arc (that runs alongside your story arc) that hooks me in a query, and which makes me want to read the book.

KV: Any last words of advice or encouragement you’d like to share with us?

LS: Focus on your craft and give yourself time and space to grow as a writer. Getting an agent and a book deal (though very exciting and validating) are not the grand prize of writing. The goal is to write wonderful stories that you love and reach the audience who will love them as well. So keep that in mind when you’re biting your nails over a query letter.

Wow, wow, wow! Thank you, ladies, for these wonderful thoughts. I, too, thought Ms. Shurtliff’s suggestion about focusing more on the book and less on the query was spot-on, and Ms. Andelman’s insights into her manuscript-reading thought process were so informative.

As I announced a few months ago, RUMP recently sold to Knopf/Random House, so the rest of you will be able to read RUMP for yourselves in the spring of 2013! Until then, this interview will have to tide you over:)


draeves said...

I'm just starting to query, so this interview was very timely! Thanks.

Jenilyn Tolley said...

Thanks for the interview! I love RUMP and can't wait to read it again in print!

Krista V. said...

You're welcome, draeves! I always like seeing examples of queries that worked - they give me an idea of what to shoot for, and they give me hope:)

Couldn't have said it better myself, Jeni:)

Jeff Chen said...

Great interview! Thanks for all the useful info.


Tara said...

Fantastically helpful as usual, Krista. =) I also love to see queries that worked and what the agents thought of them. And RUMP sounds terrific--I look forward to getting my hands on it in 2013!

Steph Sinkhorn said...

Awesome interview by a pair of awesome ladies :D

Stephanie Denise Brown said...

Great interview! Thanks for all the hard work you put into presenting these tips and insights. I'm definitely thinking about that emotional arc now and how important that is to present in a summary.

Melodie Wright said...

I can't wait to read this book! Rumpelstiltskin is one of my favorite fairy-tales - I love the idea of a re-telling. Thanks!!

Myrna Foster said...

Thanks for this interview. From the query, I can see why Ms. Andelman requested a full, and I'm excited to read RUMP when it comes out.

Suzanne Warr said...

I love a good old-fashioned fairytale, but I have a feeling Rump is going to surpass the original. Congrats to both Ms. Andelman and Liesl!

The querying advice it golden, too. Thanks for another great interview, Krista!

Dana E said...

Reading the comments of the author and agent together was so helpful. Congratulations to both and thanks Krista!

Krista V. said...

You're welcome, Jeff! Good to hear from you.

Tara, I'll have to do a giveaway as soon as I get my hands on a copy of RUMP:)

You would know, Steph:) Thanks for stopping by. (And congratulations on signing with Ms. Andelman yourself!)

Stephanie, I thought that was an excellent point as well. When we're writing our queries, we worry so much about presenting our plots sometimes that we lose sight of the characters. But the characters are what really sell a book. The characters are the people you fall in love with.

Melodie, it's a fabulous retelling, too. Liesl made the bad guy the misunderstood hero, and it worked perfectly (especially for an MG audience).

Myrna, the voice of the query - especially that first paragraph - perfectly matches the tone of the book. Like Liesl said, I still smile every time I read it:)

Suzanne, RUMP is to Rumpelstiltskin what THE TRUE STORY OF THE THREE LITTLE PIGS is to The Three Little Pigs. Definitely improvements over the original tales.

Glad you liked the interview, Dana! I love seeing both sides of the story, too.

Escape Artist said...

Just lovely! What a wonderful way of going through a success story! I loved hearing both sides, and I think the story of RUMP sounds fantastic! The query was very well done indeed!
Krista, your superstar rating has been upped to uber superstar! I don't know, but if you keep going like you are, you're going to be your own little shining galaxy!
How do you do it?

J. N. Khoury said...

I love getting the perspectives of both agent and author together here, Krista! Thanks so much for sharing! Fairy-tale retellings are so popular right now, but I think this is one of the most unique takes on the subject I've seen. We all know the story of Rumplestiltskin, but he's still one of the marginal characters that really deserves more spotlight. So excited for this book and its author!

Krista V. said...

Linda, thank you for the lovely comment. To be honest, I just ask myself, "What sort of posts would I want to read if I were stopping by the blog for a visit?" and then I try to make those happen. I'm glad you enjoyed the interview.

Yep, J.N., I think RUMP is pretty unique. Liesl took the villain and made him a very sympathetic protagonist. You're rooting for little Rump from page one.

erica and christy said...

Thank you! I'm really struggling with my query right now, so this post was immensely helpful. Worrying less about plot points and more about character arc is advice I've not heard before. It may be just what my query is lacking, especially since I've been told my query is too synopsis-like. Rump sounds like an amazing retelling! Christy

Krista V. said...

Thanks for stopping by, Christy! I agree that we don't often hear that piece of advice, but it's a good one. Best of luck writing that query!

Fabio Bueno said...

"Getting an agent and a book deal (though very exciting and validating) are not the grand prize of writing. The goal is to write wonderful stories that you love and reach the audience who will love them as well." Loved that! Thanks, Krista.

Krista V. said...

Liesl's a wise woman, isn't she, Fabio? I'm very blessed to have her as a critique partner.