Friday, August 8, 2014

Agent-Author Chat: Mackenzie Brady and Catherine Lo

I’m thrilled to welcome Mackenzie Brady of New Leaf Literary & Media and Catherine Lo to the blog for this latest installment of “Agent-Author Chat.” In Ms. Lo’s case, it’s something of a homecoming, since she and THIS IS HOW IT ENDS participated in “The Writer’s Voice” back in 2013. I’m happy to report that in the last year and a half, Ms. Lo signed with Ms. Brady and Ms. Brady sold THIS IS HOW IT ENDS to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The book will be released in 2016, but in the meantime, pull up a beanbag and check out the interview.

As always, Ms. Lo’s query and responses will appear in orange, Ms. Brady’s in blue. Enjoy!

Ms. Lo’s Query I have been waiting anxiously for you to re-open to queries after reading your #MSWL for novels that challenge pre-conceived notions and finding your motto LIVE, WORK, CREATE. I identify with much of what you post on your Tumblr account, and I hope you are intrigued by my novel THIS IS HOW IT ENDS. In this book, I aim to challenge people's assumptions about the topic of suicide:

The girl in Dr. Blumenthal’s office is broken.

She wasn’t always broken, of course. Just over a year ago she was a hopeful ninth grade student looking forward to four years of adventure with her new best friend. But that was Before.

Before her best friend committed suicide. Before she found the diaries. Before her whole understanding of the past became a confused and jumbled mess.

Unable to articulate all that has happened, the girl offers up a leather-bound journal as evidence. The journal contains a series of diary entries written by two girls, Jessie and Annie. Their words and memories have been woven together to tell the story of a tumultuous year--a year of betrayals, boys and bullying.

One of the girls will not survive the year. The other will become the wounded girl in the doctor’s office. Only the journal will reveal which girl is which.

Complete at 71,000 words, THIS IS HOW IT ENDS is a Contemporary YA novel inspired by my twelve years working with at-risk teenagers as a teacher in a behavior support program.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

KV: Ms. Lo, how did you first come up with the idea for THIS IS HOW IT ENDS? 

CL: Thank you so much for hosting us on your Author-Agent Chat. 

The idea for THIS IS HOW IT ENDS…this is actually kind of interesting, because the idea has changed so much over this last year.

Initially, the story was inspired by the aftermath of a tragedy that happened at the school where I teach. In my role, I gave support to grief counselors, and worked closely with young people trying to process through their grief over the loss of two students. Being a witness to so much pain and emotion, I had to channel it somehow, and it came out in my writing. I initially envisioned THIS IS HOW IT ENDS as the story of two girls--one who would ultimately commit suicide, and one who would be struggling to come to terms with her role in that loss.

As I wrote, though, the story became more and more about something else. What leapt off the page was the story of the friendship between the girls, Jessie and Annie. They have a very complex relationship--one that’s complicated by the baggage they both bring. Both girls need something from the other, and both struggle with the intensity of feeling that goes into their friendship, and how volatile that friendship becomes. 

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?

CL: While writing the manuscript, I spent a lot of my downtime reading and researching about the query writing process. I didn’t actually write the query until after the manuscript was done (or, at least the draft I considered “done” back then), but I kept it in the back of my head and puzzled over it a great deal.

I revised my query so many times, it was ridiculous! I think every agent I queried got a completely different summary of the manuscript. In May 2013, I participated in The Writer’s Voice contest (go Team Krista!), and the help you gave me refining my query at that time was invaluable.

KV: It helped that we were working with great source material to begin with:)

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

CL: One of the difficulties I had was trying to get out the idea that the story is told in alternating viewpoints. It was difficult to work in everything I wanted to say without it sounding disjointed and confusing.

The easiest…I don’t know if there was an easiest! Query writing was difficult, though looking back, I did enjoy it. I put a lot of thought into who I would query, and I researched each agent before querying them. The part I enjoyed the most was personalizing each query I sent. I wanted the agents to know the reason why I was querying them in particular.

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

MB: This is going to sound horrible, but I've always had a soft spot for suicide stories. I think it's because my high school survived half a dozen suicides in three years, as did many neighboring districts, so it was very much a part of my high school experience. So, I think I initially reacted to the subject matter Cathy outlined in her query. I also remember particularly liking the suspense element of not knowing which girl would survive the year. 

KV: Obviously, the manuscript met--or exceeded--your expectations. What did you love about THIS IS HOW IT ENDS?

MB: I loved (and still love) the raw, emotional power of THIS IS HOW IT ENDS. While the structure and plot have changed over time, the heart of it--Annie and Jessie's complicated friendship--has always remained strong. I connected with both girls equally and instantly, so in moments of conflict I felt incredibly torn between cuddling and killing them both. It is a deliciously frustrating read, as many good stories are!

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

MB: I can't remember exactly how long it took me to begin reading the manuscript after Cathy queried me, but I know that once I did crack open those pages, I finished the whole manuscript in less than forty-eight hours. Once I started I couldn't stop. I had two interns reading it alongside me and we kept shouting across the office what page we were on and how much we loved it. 

In general, I try to get to a manuscript within a week or two of requesting it. Holidays and vacations can slow things down, of course, but I try to be cognizant of everyone's time. If I am enjoying something, though, I can usually churn through it in a few days. 

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

CL: I remember how excited I was to start querying, and I know how tempting it is to rush through the query writing stage and press Send. The query letter is so important, though. It’s your one shot to grab the attention of an agent and get them excited about your book. My advice is: don’t rush. Take your time, get lots of feedback, and do your research. There are many sites that feature “queries that worked”--read some of those and find out what agents are looking for. I also stalked Janet Reid’s Query Shark site and picked up as many pointers as I could there.

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

MB: Do your research. There are so many excellent resources online that break down the aspects of compelling query letters that you'd be silly not to spend some time familiarizing yourself with what works.

Also, read a lot of jacket copy. The best query letters read like the backs of published books--they give you a full sense of the story but also leave you wanting more. 

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

CL: Keep at it! Don’t give up. I can’t tell you how many rejections I weathered before I got my “Yes!” Take each one as a learning experience and use it to grow and improve. Take any little bits of feedback you’re given, and put them to good use. You will grow as a writer through the querying process if you keep an open mind and keep learning. Every rejection is a learning opportunity.

MB: Finding an agent is like dating--there are a lot of potential partners out there, but you most likely could only spend your life with a small percentage of them. Take your time and make sure you find one you can trust and rely on. 

Excellent advice, ladies. Thank you for these answers. I was somewhat aware of this excitement as it unfolded, but it’s nice to hear whole story. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of THIS IS HOW IT ENDS!


Heather said...

This sounds like such a great (albeit sad) book!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

I know, Heather. The basic concept sounded so relevant in today's market, and when I found out that it was also a mystery--that you had to figure out which girl had lived and which girl had died--I was sold.