Thursday, October 16, 2014

Agent-Author Chat: Lisa Jane Weller and Ashley Turcotte

I'm pleased to welcome Lisa Jane Weller of Broadland Literary and Ashley Turcotte, Team Krista alum and "The Writer's Voice" veteran, to the blog. Ms. Turcotte was on my team last year with LUMINARY and on Monica's team this year with TEARLESS, which went on catch the eye of Ms. Weller, one of our ninja agents. She requested a partial, then a full, and the rest, as they say, is what this interview is all about. (Oh, wait, no one says that?)

Hop over to Monica's blog and check out her entry, then pop back over here to get the behind-the-scenes scoop! As usual, Ms. Turcotte's answers will appear in orange, Ms. Weller's in blue.

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

AT: I came up with the idea while watching a movie called The Last Mimzy. I don’t want to say how, because I don’t want to give too much of the movie away. But I will say that, at the end of it, I immediately turned to my husband and asked, “Do tears actually contain DNA?” Turns out the answer is yes. It only took about thirty seconds after that for the main premise of TEARLESS to form in my mind. 

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?

AT: I wrote the first draft of my query when I was about 10,000 words into the manuscript. Then I worked on it off and on during the months that I was writing and editing TEARLESS.

Queries are just about the hardest thing in the world for me to write. Well, let me rephrase that. Good queries are just about the hardest thing in the world for me to write. I can write a terrible query in ten minutes flat. So that’s why I gave myself months to get it right. And even with all that time, I don’t think I ever could’ve gotten there on my own. One of my critique partners heroically held my hand through at least 20 drafts, and she’s the one who helped me really make it shine. 

For me, the big challenge is deciding which information to include. In a fantasy query, you need to include world building details or the reader will have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. But too much world building? Boring. You need to introduce your characters, obviously--but which ones? I read once that if you have more than three characters mentioned by name in your query, it gets confusing. So narrowing down the entire cast of a novel to only three is always a tough choice. And the hardest part of all is deciding what to use as a hook. Because the last thing you want when an agent finishes reading your query is for her to go, “Who cares?” But you can’t give too much away, or there won’t be anything left to make the agent want to read the book. So many fine lines to walk when writing a query. 

KV: How did Ms. Weller come to request your manuscript?

AT: Lisa saw my query and first 250 words back in May, when I was a member of Mónica Bustamante Wagner’s team for The Writer’s Voice. Lisa was one of the ninja agents, and she requested the first 100 pages. I actually (briefly) talked myself out of entering The Writer’s Voice this year--I’m so glad I talked myself back into it!

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

LJW: I loved Ashley's pitch for TEARLESS. I thought it was an incredibly high-concept idea, beautifully described and presented. The stakes were clear, the hero and the villain were identified immediately, and the pitch itself gave me a great idea of the direction the story would take.

It was easy to visualise the world of TEARLESS from Ashley's pitch alone (I particularly loved the idea of the villain using creepy puppets as his eyes and ears), and when I read Ashley's first page, I found her main character, Sam, to be instantly likeable. At that point, I knew I wanted to see more!

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

LJW: TEARLESS is a truly wonderful novel, with a main character the reader can really root for. I love Sam's positivity, bravery and determination. He's such a good, kind boy--very heroic, even if he doesn’t realise it. Sam's loyalty to his family and friends (particularly his best friend, Tria) is admirable, and he makes for a very engaging hero. Meanwhile the villain of the piece, Ero, is dangerous, charismatic, and a mystery for Sam to solve.

With this novel, Ashley has backed up what is an incredibly strong concept with equally strong storytelling and characterisation. TEARLESS is a real page-turner and there's a definite sense that anything could happen as the story progresses. I love the twists and turns this story takes along the way and the secrets that are revealed, as Sam digs deeper into the truth behind Ero's magic.

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

LJW: I requested the first 100 pages of TEARLESS from “The Writer’s Voice” and read those pages about a week later. I remember reaching the end of those sample pages and wishing I'd requested the full manuscript, because I just had to know what happened next.

Once Ashley sent me her full manuscript, I read it over the weekend that followed, along with sample pages from another of her novels. Happily, I loved the rest of Ashley's work as much as I did those first 100 pages of TEARLESS, and I contacted her the following week to arrange a time to talk. So from submission to offer of representation, there was roughly a three-week window.

I don't like to keep authors waiting any longer than necessary, so I try to respond to all requested material as quickly as I can. Generally, I'll read and respond to partial manuscript requests within one to four weeks, and to full manuscript requests within two to four weeks, but my response time can vary depending on my workload at the time. When I acknowledge receipt of the requested material, I always advise the author of my expected response time.

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

AT: How to write a query! (I’m only half joking.) There are so many invaluable resources online to at least get you headed in the right direction, and I didn’t know any of them existed back when I started. My personal favorite? Query Shark. If you’re currently in the querying trenches (or intend to be soon), and haven’t checked it out, please, please, please, please, please do so. Read every single post. You won’t regret it.

Other awesome sources of query wisdom? Blogs (especially when posts include the queries writers used to get their agents). Twitter (agents tweet super useful info all the time.) And other writers (if you’re lucky enough to find good critique partners, cherish them and never let them go). 

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

LJW: I think it's important for an author to research an agent before querying them, to make sure the agent is someone the author would consider working with should they offer representation. There are many different agents out there, all with different levels of experience and areas of expertise, and not every agent will be a good match for every author, or for that author's work.

When it comes to query letters, I personally like a short letter containing all of the relevant information about the novel (title, genre, word count, target audience, plus a few paragraphs detailing the novel's story and main characters) and any relevant author details. I'm looking for authors I can work with in the long-term, so I'm also happy for a query letter to include brief details of other novels an author has either completed or is currently writing.

And don't forget your sample pages! I invite authors to include the first five to ten pages of their manuscript with their query letter, and I always read those sample pages, even if a query letter hasn't quite caught my attention. So if an agent's submission guidelines ask for sample pages, my tip is to include them--it could increase the chance of an agent asking to see more of your work.

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

AT: I know it’s a cliché, but seriously, never ever give up. It took me almost five years from the time I started querying to the time I signed with Lisa. Five years, four manuscripts, and over 200 rejections. (And that doesn’t count the eight years I was writing before I got over my fears and started querying.) I made a ridiculous number of mistakes along the way. (Seriously, the first query I ever sent around? I’d be mortified if anyone ever saw it. Mortified.) But that’s all part of the journey (I decided to throw in another cliché for good measure). So keep learning. Keep writing. Keep sending queries and entering contests.

And for the love of all things good and shiny, make sure you have some critique partners. Good ones. People who you trust, and whose opinions you respect. I would not be the writer I am today without the lovely ladies who helped get me here. 

LJW: If you've written and completed a novel, you've done something many people would love to do, but never will, so be proud of that achievement. If you love writing, and you have stories to tell, then keep writing, and try not to take rejections to heart. If an agent or a publisher turns down a novel, it just means that novel is not quite right for them at that time. Remember, an agent can only successfully represent a limited number of authors, and they will be forced to make hard choices and turn down projects with merit and potential, if they feel those projects aren't a perfect match for them.

I think it's so important for authors to sign with an agent who absolutely loves and understands their work. If an agent turns down your work, it just means they're not your perfect match, and they probably wouldn't be able to offer you the level of enthusiasm you deserve. So don't settle for second best, and don't give up. Keep searching for that perfect match, take note of advice and feedback you receive along the way, and above all, keep writing!

Thank you, ladies, for these wonderfully detailed answers. You've given us a lot to think about. Fingers crossed for a quick sale!

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