Have you every read someone’s query and thought “I wish I could write like that?” I discovered today’s featured writer, Mary Elizabeth Summer, through a query she wrote for her upcoming book TRUST ME, I’M LYING. From the first line she had me hooked, and by the time I was done reading, I knew as soon as her book was published, I wanted to read it. Along with her interview today, I’ve asked Mary Elizabeth for permission to post her query. Read it, and you’ll see why it’s the perfect example of everything you should do to attract agent interest.
Here is Mary Elizabeth’s journey…
Amy: When did you first know you wanted to write a Young Adult novel?
Mary Elizabeth: I’ve wanted to be a writer of fiction forever. Since first grade, really. Since I first knew what books were. But I settled on the young adult genre more recently than that. I had written several stories for a more adult audience, when I realized I was reading all young adult books. And I thought to myself, if this is what I want to read, why am I writing something else? It was like the sky opened up and angels came pouring forth, except not really, because I don’t write angel books. I did write a YA paranormal, but there weren’t any angels in it. Not that I have anything against angels…um, I’m digressing, aren’t I? Anyway, I’d like to say I had a more lofty, selfless, support-the-children kind of motive, but the truth is, I just wanted to feel passionate about what I was writing.
Amy: What inspired you to write TRUST ME, I’M LYING?
Mary Elizabeth: I had just decided to drawer that YA paranormal I mentioned, and I was looking for something fresh, something different. And at the time, there seemed to be lots of con artist shows on TV–Leverage, White Collar, Fox News… And it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen any YA novels about con artists. Then I passed out, and when I came to three days later, Julep (TMIL’s intrepid heroine) leaped fully formed from my head onto the page. (That was almost a true statement.) I have, of course, seen several YA novels about con artists since–comps research being what it is–but at the time, it seemed like an undiscovered country. And to be fair, it’s still a rather sparsely populated country.
Amy: Was TRUST ME, I’M LYING your first completed manuscript or do you have others you’ve shelved?
Mary Elizabeth: Oh, oops. I answered this question early. I have three completed manuscripts and detailed synopses for a trilogy on the shelf at the moment. I only ever tried querying the YA paranormal, and only to a handful of agents before I decided to shelve it. I knew in my gut it wasn’t ready and that it wasn’t really marketable even if it were. But the beautiful thing about a shelf is that you can pull stuff down, dust it off, and send it out at any time. And the beautiful thing about the market is that it’s always changing. So I view the shelf as more a temporary holding place for stories that aren’t quite ready yet.
Amy: I love the query for TRUST ME, I’M LYING. Was it easy to compose or did it go through many drafts?
Mary Elizabeth: Yes and yes. I seem to have a knack for back-cover copy–probably from years upon years upon years of reading the backs of every kind of book under the sun. It has a rhythm to it that feels natural on my ear. Plus, I waded through a metric ton of blog posts about effective query writing before I even attempted writing my query (Query Shark, Nathan Bransford’s excellent post on the topic, Miss Snark’s First Victim). I also did some work on my elevator pitch/log line prior to writing my query, which helped me chisel away at my story until I knew exactly what it was about and exactly how I wanted to present it. For example, I wanted my opening sentence to hook the reader but also convey something about the theme of identity that’s woven throughout the book, which is how I came up with “Julep Dupree is not a real person.” Is it the most original hook ever? Probably not. But it’s unusual enough, and it fits the story like skinny jeans on a Victoria’s Secret model. In my mind, the perfect query is short, ratchets up the stakes, and generates more questions than it answers. So knowing all that going into it, I found writing the first draft pretty easy. But I still went through several rounds of revisions, including showing it to lots of writer friends to get their feedback, before I sent it anywhere.
Amy: Do you use beta readers or critique partners? If so, how instrumental are they to your writing process?
Mary Elizabeth: Oops, I answered this question already, too. I must be more psychic than I thought. Anyway, the answer is YES, I could not live without critique partners. Sometimes a scene isn’t working, and I know it’s not working, but I don’t know why, and always, ALWAYS, my crit partners can tell me exactly what’s wrong. I will show my work to anyone who will look at it, writers and non-writers alike. But there are a select few critique partners I hold in reserve. I don’t show anything to them until I’ve edited it as far as I can go on my own. Then I send it out to the special group to get fresh feedback from people who know nothing about the story or the previous iterations that have led up to it. And then once I’ve incorporated their feedback, I’ll send it to my agent for her edits.
Amy: How many agents did you query for TRUST ME, I’M LYING? Did you receive immediate responses or did you have to wait a while for replies?
Mary Elizabeth: Well, my trajectory for TMIL was a little unusual. I entered my query and the first 250 words of my manuscript into a query contest. I did also send out a few queries to other agents, and because I already had a couple fulls out to the agents from the contest, the agents I’d queried separately from the contest responded fairly quickly if they’d decided to ask for fulls (within a couple days or so). Then a week after sending out my first full, Laura Bradford (my awesome agent!), called me to offer me representation. Because other agents had the full as well, I asked Laura if I could take a week to think about it (which is pretty standard), and notified the other agents still reading that I had an offer on the table. Some of them bowed out, some threw their offers in the ring, and then it was an all-out Game-of-Thrones-style blood-bath. Just kidding. There weren’t any dragons involved. But the whole process took a couple of weeks. Query contests: best kept secret of the publishing world.
Amy: What can you tell me about “the call” with your agent, Laura Bradford? How did you know she was the right choice for you?
Mary Elizabeth: I was really, really lucky, because I had just read a post about what to ask when an agent calls for The Call. So I had two pages of questions prepped and ready to go just in case. Sadly, I didn’t ask hardly any of them, because I was too busy shamelessly fangirling her with squeals that would make a tween Beiberite cover her ears. I’d been stalking Ms. Bradford for a year on Twitter and already knew she was one of the top two agents I wanted to represent me. She was all smooth about it and “ain’t no thang” like she has this kind of conversation every day. Basically, she called to say she liked the story, and then gave me some ideas for edits she’d recommend, and then talked in general terms about how she’d submit it to editors, and then asked if I had any questions and how I foresaw my future career as an author and what kinds of things I was looking for in an agent, and then she officially offered me representation. We were on the phone for about an hour. As for how I knew she was the right choice for me…that’s harder to quantify. It came down to a choice between her and two other excellent agents, one of whom was the other of my top-two most desirable agents of all time. It was such a tough decision, I can’t even. I went round and round about it and was completely useless at work (don’t tell my supervisor). But in the end, Laura was the strongest in the places I was the weakest, and I felt I’d benefit most from the kind of balance she’d bring me. And I was totally right. She challenges me to be stronger and savvier and more professional, and in the end, she got my book picked up by Delacorte Press, which still blows my freaking mind.
Amy: Was there ever a time you thought about giving up on your writing dream? If so, what motivated you to keep writing?
Mary Elizabeth: OMG so many times. I still want to give up some days, because believe me, publishing is not for the faint of heart. But there’s a specific example I remember that occurred just at the time as I was entering the query contest. I’d failed to make the cut for a different query contest, and I was so fatigued–more than disappointed, even, I was just bone-tired. I work full time and have a two-year-old and a partner trying to get her own business off the ground, and the time I spent writing I could have been cleaning the house or doing freelance work or at the very least recharging my batteries. I told my partner after entering that fateful query contest that if nothing came of it, I was going to take a year off from writing–redirect my energy to my family and my career. But then, of course, Laura Bradford came along and turned all that upside down…so that was what you could call a motivator. But there were lots of other times, dark times when I thought I’d have a better chance becoming a Hollywood starlet than getting published. When those times hit, I’d take a breather for a week or two to regroup. Then I’d pull myself together and focus my energy back on the story, which is the center of it all. Nothing else gives me the same kind of rush as falling in love with my characters. Getting to spend time in their world is what keeps me going in mine. For good or ill, being a storyteller is written in my code. As long as the story still wants to be told, I will be there to tell it.
Query for TRUST ME, I’M LYING:
Julep Dupree is not a real person. In fact, Julep isn’t even her real name. She’s a grifter, a con artist, a master of disguise, and a sophomore at St. Agatha High. The downside of St. Agatha’s is that its private-school price tag is a bit higher than Julep’s father, an old-school grifter with a weakness for the ponies, can afford. So Julep makes up the difference by running petty scams for her classmates, while dodging the dean of students and maintaining an A+ (okay, A-) average.
But when she comes home one day to a ransacked apartment and a missing dad, Julep’s carefully laid plans for an expenses-paid golden ticket to Yale start to unravel. Even with help from St. Agatha’s resident Prince Charming, Tyler Richland, Julep struggles to trace her dad’s trail of clues through a maze of creepy stalkers, hit attempts, family secrets, and worse, the threat of foster care. With everything she has left at stake, Julep must tap all her resources and use every grift in the book to find her dad before his mark finds her.
Mary Elizabeth Summer is an instructional designer, a mom, a champion of the serial comma, and a pie junkie. Oh, and she sometimes writes books about teenage delinquents saving the day. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her daughter, her partner, and her evil overlor–er, cat. TRUST ME, I’M LYING, a YA mystery, will be released by Delacorte in Fall 2014. To learn more about Mary Elizabeth check out her website or follow her on Twitter.