Friday, November 22, 2013

Agent-Author Chat: Monika Verma and Alexa Donne

I can't tell you how excited I am to welcome agent Monika Verma of Levine Greenberg Literary Agency and author Alexa Donne back to the blog. I say back because Ms. Verma and Ms. Donne connected right here on Team Krista during "The Writer's Voice" last May, which means that this installment of "Agent-Author Chat" represents a direct success story for our team. Woohoo!

Check out Ms. Donne's fabulous entry (which was previously titled FUTURESHOCK), then hop back over here to learn how everything came together.

KV: Ms. Donne, how did you first come up with the idea for FUTURE TENSE?

AD: No joke--I had the idea in the shower. This was in the Spring of 2012 and I was taking a second crack at a YA dystopian I had abandoned after NaNo 2011. I was supposed to be brainstorming for the dystopian, and a stray thought flitted through my head—people always ask “if you could meet any historical figure, living or dead, who would it be?” Well, what if you WERE the historical figure? And, and… you’re famous because you become President! First female President of the United States! And then I thought the deliciously awful twisty thing (which I won’t reveal), and FUTURE TENSE was born. It may be the most productive shower I will ever have in my life.

Then, when it came to developing the idea (outside of the shower), I was a huge fan of the show Jack and Bobby on the WB, which is how I landed on the Presidential future and YA setting. I love the idea of following a teen character who is destined to become not only famous, but hold the highest political office in the land. I’m also a Doctor Who fan… and who doesn’t want a young, cute, dorky Doctor-like character showing up and taking you on adventures?

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?

AD: I didn’t write my query until I was done with the “draft zero” of the book. I did, however, write my “hook” (which became the first paragraph of the query) during the writing process, mostly because I was really excited about querying/entering contests and I am incorrigible.

I went through two iterations of my query--the first one I used for Pitch Madness, but didn’t send it to any agents via traditional querying. I waited until I did some more revising, and then I entered The Writer’s Voice. This is where I got my second and final version of my query, via mentorship with you (Krista). The advice I received from several sources, including a friend that works for an agency, was to throw all my best hooks into my query. So query #1 gave away a major spoiler, for a reveal that doesn’t happen until you are about 80% into the book. But the query felt very kitchen sink, I think, and Krista worked with me to rein my query in and focus on the personal and romantic conflict. So query number two teased the suspense, but did not give away the ending. I was so happy with this query (which better reflected the tone of my book), that I used it for all of my traditional querying--I sent it to approximately 19 agents. The only thing that changed mid-way through was I tweaked my YA book comps.

Format-wise, I shied away from a personalized query that drops the book title, genre and word count up front, and instead dove right into the characters/conflict/stakes. I prefer this format for a number of reasons, but partly because I know when I'm looking at a query, my eye jumps to two things first: first paragraph (hook) and then down to second to last paragraph, where I hope to see all the book details. I sound like a sycophant when I personalize my queries, so unless an agent specifically said they like to know why you’re querying them, I didn’t personalize. I also am a big believer in dropping your book hook immediately, in paragraph one. Some agents only read your first paragraph before deciding to read on. So make it good.

KV: Butting in to say I appreciate the plug. If I participate in “The Writer’s Voice” next year, I’m definitely pointing prospective teammates to this post:)

So how did Ms. Verma come to request your manuscript?

AD: Monika voted for me during The Writer’s Voice. She was one of two agents that voted, so she got a partial. A few days later, she upgraded her request to a full.

KV: Ms. Verma, when you saw Ms. Donne's entry in “The Writer’s Voice,” what caught your attention?

MV: I’m a big fan of contemporary YA, time-travel stories and all things British, so this entry was tailor-made for me. I was also struck by how strong the voice was, and I could tell right away that the author had a sense of humor. These are all things I’m on the lookout for when I read submissions.

KV: You and Ms. Donne ended up working through several rounds of pre-offer revisions. How do you decide whether to request revisions or offer representation?

MV: I always want to be confident in my ability to sell a book before I offer representation to the author, and much of the time that means working through some revisions before making things official.  In the same vein, I like to make sure that the author and I are on the same page regarding revisions before she or he signs on, just to avoid any snafus down the road. Some authors have a particular vision for their work, and if it turns out that my vision differs from theirs, it’s best to find that out early.

KV: Obviously, these revisions met--or exceeded--your expectations. What did you love about FUTURE TENSE?

MV: I love that the protagonist is strong, smart and unapologetic about her decisions. I also very much appreciate that while there is a romance storyline, it isn’t front and center; the character’s decisions about her future and her friendships take precedence. I laughed out loud at certain lines when I first read the manuscript, and I still laugh when I read them now, several drafts later. Finally, I love that the story embraces high school nerd culture and celebrates it.

KV: Ms. Donne, now that you’ve reached the querying finish line, what do you wish you had known when you were back at the start gate?

AD: Relative to my query, I have few regrets! I made some missteps with my first query, but I didn’t actually send it to anyone (outside one contest). Even though I wanted to query, I sat on it--something was niggling at me that it wasn’t The One. I’m glad I waited and got help in The Writer’s Voice. It was meant to be! Once I was ready, I queried smart--in small batches and using Query Tracker to keep track of things--and got a good number of requests.

As far as my manuscript is concerned, probably the only thing I would change is I would have made the harsh edits I ended up making to my first eight chapters earlier than I did. A few of my passes from agents remarked that it was slow to start, and later I fixed that. However, que sera--things happen the way they happen, and I’m happy with it!

KV: Ms. Verma, what querying tips do you have?

MV: The best advice I can give authors is to be clear and concise. As an agent sifting through queries all day, I want a query to provide all the basics about the book--synopsis, genre, similar titles, author bio--in an easy-to-digest way, but to also pique my interest and make me want to read more. I would also recommend checking out agent bios and wishlists, and adjusting your submission list accordingly. I personally like to hear about what inspires authors to write about whatever they choose to write about, whether it’s a love for the genre, personal experience etc.

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

MV: There are tons of great tips floating around on how to ace your query or pitch an agent, but with YA it all comes down to the voice. If I read a submission and can immediately relate to the protagonist (as I did in this case,) I’m likely to keep reading regardless of any other factors. Focus on the voice and the rest will follow!

AD: Be brand-minded, marketing savvy, and gather as much information as you can about the industry before, during and after you write. Write what you love and are inspired to write, but be smart: mindful of trends, how to package your book as well as you can (title, query, comps, etc.), your public persona. Agents will appreciate and respond to someone that shows knowledge of the market, which means read as many YA (etc.) books as you can, use great comps in your query, and understand how your novel will fit into the current marketplace. Make yourself the ideal client--a great writer, who can write hooks that can sell, who is flexible but passionate (so you’ll work with your agent/editor to make changes… but you know when to stick to your guns), and is constantly working to improve your craft. This means dealing well with criticism (get some honest, borderline brutal critique partners!), and editing smart and well.

Oh, and rejection isn’t personal--really!--and is par for the course in any creative industry. If you think of the whole querying/agenting/revision/submission process as an adventure, the knocks are easier to take. It truly only takes one yes.

Thank you, Ms. Verma and Ms. Donne, for these insightful answers. I got to see a lot of this unfold behind the scenes, and I'm SO thrilled the story had a happy ending.

Have a great weekend!


Karen lee Hallam said...

Great query tips. This story sounds right up my alley. Congratultions, Monika and Alexa!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Thanks for stopping by, Karen!