Friday, November 30, 2012

Agent-Author Chat: Mandy Hubbard and Sarah Henson

Hey, look, another interview! Today’s installment of “Agent-Author Chat” features Mandy Hubbard of D4EO Literary Agency and one of her newest clients, Sarah Henson, who is a Team Krista alum. (Woohoo!) After--or perhaps during--“The Writer’s Voice,” Ms. Henson wrote DOOR NUMBER FOUR, which caught Ms. Hubbard’s eye right off the bat. She’s a great example of the advice she shares below:)

As always, Ms. Henson’s query and responses will appear in orange, Ms. Hubbard’s in blue. Happy reading!

Ms. Henson’s Query Sixteen-year-old Dot Parker has forty-eight hours before the government kills her dad.

Her father invented the cube, an electrical system that harvests energy from emotions. Thanks to Dot's dad, for the last ten years the country has been powered by love. But the system is failing, and now the government wants to switch to a more efficient and controllable emotion: fear. A shift that can only be activated with a password.

And the password only exists in Dot's head.

Alone, broke, and on the run from the same agents who took her dad, Dot has two days to scramble from her home in Alabama to the government facility in California. The string of numbers in her brain is the only thing keeping her dad alive, and she has no intention of turning it over. Not until she sees her dad in one piece. And definitely not until she learns how to destroy the cube system.

Because Dot has been behind Door Number Four. She's experienced how the government plans to illicit fear, and she has the torture scars to prove it. Her dad knows the system, Dot knows the password, and only together can they stop the switch--and the torment of millions of innocent people. If the agents catch her first, though, Dot's going back behind Door Number Four, and this time there will be no escape.

DOOR NUMBER FOUR is a 60,000 word YA Speculative Thriller. Per your submission guidelines, the first five pages are below. Thank you for your time and consideration.

KV: Ms. Henson, how did you first come up with the idea for DOOR NUMBER FOUR?

SH: Honestly, I dreamed it first. I have the strangest dreams ever, but most my ideas start there. I wrote it down the next day and started musing on how you could get energy from emotions. After lots of wacky conversations with my electrical engineer husband on how to make this thing plausible (he was super helpful with the technical details that were way over my head!), the plot started to take shape and the characters began to reveal themselves. I wrote a first chapter and the words just started flowing. It’s a far cry from my initial dream, but I’m really in love with this story!

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?

SH: Oh, the query-writing process! I’ll just let it be known that I hate writing queries. I love helping others with theirs, but it’s so hard to step back and boil your own story down.

I usually write the query first, but this time I put it off until I finished the manuscript. It honestly gave me fits. I revised it at least five times, posted it on two different forums, and appealed for help from my CP and from the good folks on Twitter.

After a couple revisions, I ended up moving the big reveal to the beginning, which increased the tension throughout the query. That little switch made all the difference! After that, I added a first sentence I found enticing and the rest flowed from there.

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

SH: Figuring out how to start is always difficult. There’s a lot of pressure on that first sentence and it took a while for me to get it right.

I think the hardest part, though, was deciding how much of the plot to pack in. There’s a love interest and a romance that’s a pretty big chunk of the story. I ended up throwing that out of the query to keep the tension up and the plot simple. (It also led to me revising the manuscript because it showed me something that just wasn’t working.)

The easiest part was adding voice.

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

MH: Sometimes it's as simple as a killer first line making me go WHOA, and then slow down and read a query more carefully. Sarah did just that--her first line was, "Sixteen-year-old Dot Parker has forty-eight hours before the government kills her dad."

I definitely perked up there! And then as I read, she raised the stakes with these lines:

“But the system is failing, and now the government wants to switch to a more efficient and controllable emotion: fear. A shift that can only be activated with a password.

“And the password only exists in Dot's head.”

Now we know that Dot is personally at risk too. It was a great way to introduce the conflict in a relatable way, and I loved the premise, so it was a slam-dunk for me.

KV: How quickly did you read DOOR NUMBER FOUR? Is that pretty typical of your response times on requested material, or do those vary?

MH: I requested the query just a few hours after she sent it. Normally the interns sort things into a folder and it takes me longer, but I had glanced at it on my phone and jumped at the chance to read it. She sent it over on Friday, October 12, and I sent her an e-mail on Tuesday, October 16, asking if she'd be open to an exclusive revise-and-resubmit. She replied saying she was "definitely interested," and I sent her notes that night. So from query to me sending her six pages of notes, it covered five days.

My typical times are definitely longer. (Most queries are responded to in two to four weeks, most full MSs in three to six weeks.)

KV: You ended up asking Ms. Henson for a revision before you officially signed her. How do you decide whether to request revisions or offer representation?

MH: Well, to be fair, it's one of THREE options--reject, revise, or represent. A reject is for those projects I'm not connecting with, or I don't think I can sell, or the characters aren't working, etc. To me those can be "fatal flaws" because it's not like I can simply say, "I don't like your main character, make me a new one." It's not that simple or clear cut. It could just be my personal opinion.

As to whether I ask for revisions or make an offer, it can vary from book to book but there are some consistent things that push me one way or another. I revise with ALL of my clients, but the ones in which I would offer would be those that are 90% ready, ones that I could send out as-is and feel confident, but I just want to polish them up a bit first. Often the changes involve cutting a scene or two, or tweaking the ending.

Most often, those books I ask for revisions on are those in which I love the characters and writing, but the plot needs work. Believe it or not, plot is the easiest thing to ask for revisions on--I can tell them where things need to go, and then wait to see if they can pull it off. If the changes are substantial, and throughout the entire MS, I often just ask for the first 100 or so pages to be revised and make my decision based on that. I realize authors are doing SO MUCH work for me, and I don't want to ask for more than necessary without giving them MY commitment too. Sarah aced the first 85 pages, and now we're working together on the rest.

KV: Obviously, the revision met--or exceeded--your expectations. What did you love about DOOR NUMBER FOUR?

MH: Sarah has a very natural, fantastically flowing voice that's easy to connect with, but beyond that she's really great at relationships--between the MC and her friends, her parents, and the love interest.

In fact I didn't even think the love interest would BE a love interest at first because she did such a great job of making the MC despise him! And not in a "he's so hot and arrogant and infuriating" way, but in a "My god I can't stand this douche," and before you know it you totally love him! There are so many layers to him that you get to see later in the book. Any time a writer surprises me like that, I'm sold.

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

SH: For starters, the writing community as a whole is amazing and SO supportive, so I recommend diving in on Twitter and on forums. What helped me the most was getting involved in writer forums like Absolute Write and Agent Query Connect and reading/critiquing other people’s queries. It’s amazing how much I learned by doing that! Reading successful queries, reading bad queries, and seeing what works and what doesn’t was immensely helpful.

After you write the best query you think you can write, let other writers read it. I can’t stress this enough. Other people can see problems and plot holes that you just can’t. It can be a harrowing and frustrating experience but, at least for me, made all the difference in the world.

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

MH: Focus on the book. There's nothing worse than reading three paragraphs about an author and only ONE about the novel. You could be spongebob square pants, and I don't care, I just want to know if I love your book. (Although if you ARE spongebob square pants, my daughter would like to meet you, so e-mail me.)

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

SH: If your query just isn’t working, then maybe it’s not the query’s fault--it could be a problem with the manuscript, but don’t fret! You can always revise.

Also, keep writing. I can’t tell you how many times I felt like it would never happen for me, how many nights I cried after getting a rejection and thought I just wasn’t good enough. Each rejection made me stronger, though, and more determined to write a better story. I learned from every failed manuscript and from every query attempt. It really is a matter of writing the right story at the right time and getting it to the right agent, so don’t give up!

MH: I'll just repeat what I said on twitter yesterday--never apologize for not having experience or be SO humble that you seem like you're begging an agent to just "take a chance." If an agent is open to queries, they ARE taking changes on writers every day as they read material. 90% of my client list are writers who I did not know, who had never been published, and I signed them because the writing rocked. So be confident in your abilities and make the book great, and it won't matter who you are.

Wonderful words of wisdom, ladies. Thank you so much for sharing these insights with us, and good luck with DOOR NUMBER FOUR! It sounds like an exciting read.


Amy Jarecki said...

Hi Krista - Great interview! And yes, queries are unbelievably hard. I always wonder why writers have such a hard time with them--I do too. Fortunately I get my salesman husband to help. I think the "marketing" people can really help!

Anonymous said...

Woohoo! And, Sarah, you just inspired me to work on my query. I think giving away the stakes at the very beginning might work for me. Congrats again!

Sarah Henson said...

I'm so honored to be interviewed by Krista. Thanks for thinking of me!

Glad this inspire you Michelle!

Noelle Henry said...

YAY SARAH!!! So happy for you! This book sounds awesome. What a great concept. Can't wait for your sale! :) Another success for Team Krista!

Stephanie Garber said...

Thanks for posting this Krista!

This was such an encouraging interview to read! I recently received one of those rejections that made me feel I'll never be good enough, so I especially appreciated Sarah's positivity!

And Sarah, DOOR NUMBER FOUR sounds awesome! I can't wait to read it some day! I'm so excited for you!

Myrna Foster said...

I love how these interviews always give me ideas for fixing my own query. Thank you!

It was interesting to see reasons why the agent would reject, ask for revisions, or offer representation. Mandy Hubbard sounds like she'd be great to work with.

And I can't wait to read Sarah's book! I'm hooked.

Unknown said...

What a great interview! I LOVED the query and its first line. It's really inspired me to work harder on my own attempts. Thanks so much to Sarah, Mandy and Krista. :-D

Heather RQ said...

This helped me so much with my own query. Thank you!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Amy, your marketing-savvy husband would be a great resource. Good idea!

Michelle, I think that could work for your query, too. Good luck!

Sarah, I'm so honored to have you. Can't wait to see where your journey goes from here.

Noelle, Team Krista's on fire! :)

Stephanie, I'm glad you found the interview encouraging. It's so hard to stay positive when you're swimming in a sea of rejection, so I'm glad this helped.

Yep, Myrna, Ms. Hubbard's answers were really helpful. I liked how she broke it down like that.

Lexa and Heather, so happy to hear the interview helped! These installments of "Agent-Author Chat" are my favorite things to post:)

Dr. Milestone said...

Great advice and interview; the only thing that throws me is EVERYONE (and I mean everyone) tells us to keep the query as brief and concise as possible, usually emphasizing two paragraphs or less. I've been struggling to do that with my query, but with a complex plot or multi-layered story (with plot, theme, and symbolism) it's difficult to do that. It looks like Ms. Henson took more liberty with space to provide detail and character and build the plot in her query. Obviously if you have a strong hook it will encourage an agent to read further, but in general do agents look first at brevity or substance?