Hard work. No matter how amazing a story idea is, without hard work it will lie flat on the page. In today’s W.O.W., author, Virginia Boecker, talks about the dedication it took to writer her novel, THE WITCH HUNTER. Through edits and revisions, and then several generations of queries, she worked on her book until it was polished and ready for agents to see. And then even after she signed with her agent, and sold her book, the work continued. As she points out in her interview, writing is a constantly evolving and changing process, and in order to make your book something a reader will fall in love with, the work NEVER ends.
Many thanks to Virginia for sharing her writing odyssey today…
Amy: You lived in London and I wonder how much of your time there inspired your debut novel, THE WITCH HUNTER?
Virginia: All of it! I don’t think I would have written this book had I not lived in London. I lived in the city for four years and during that time fell head over heels in love with it. The culture, the food, the people, the weather (yes, the weather!) and in particular, the history. I was obsessed. I read everything I could get my hands on – fiction and nonfiction from the 1100s to the 1600s – and when I was done, I’d hop a tube or a train to go visit whatever castle, cathedral, museum, battleground or burial ground I had read about. To experience these things off the page really made the stories stick for me, made them more vivid and real. In my ongoing search for books I was always on the lookout for a YA that combined the history I loved with an element of magic and told in a modern, accessible voice. I never found quite what I was looking for, so I decided to write one.
Amy: Why did you choose to write it as a YA novel?
Virginia: It’s funny because I started out reading adult novels when I was ten (Stephen King, JRR Tolkien, Agatha Christie, VC Andrews, I know; totally inappropriate) but as I got older, I moved into YA. It’s what I enjoy reading now, so it seemed natural for me to write it. I like it for the usual, oft-quoted reasons: the first experiences, the uncertainty, the intensity, the immediacy. There’s so much inherent drama there already! I didn’t particularly enjoy my own teen years – I think I’m too practical to enjoy life in those extremes. That said, though, I certainly enjoy writing about them!
Amy: How many completed manuscripts did you query before THE WITCH HUNTER?
Virginia: None! This was my first. However, it went through many revisions and many beta reads before I felt it was ready to query.
Amy: Did you have critique partners or beta readers that helped you polish it? If so, how did that influence your writing process?
Virginia: I have a handful of beta readers who are invaluable to me. They’re artistic, sharp, and extremely well read. They aren’t precious about it: not about me, not about my work. They ask hard questions and tell me hard things I don’t want to hear. But it works for me: I’m not particularly precious about my writing either. If something needs to be cut to make it a better story, I’ll cut it – even if I love it. (In fact, I just cut one of my very favorite scenes during a recent revision I did with my editor at Little, Brown. I mourned it for about five minutes, then I got over it. And the story is better for it.)
Amy: Did your query for THE WITCH HUNTER come easily or did it go through many drafts?
Virginia: Oh, the query. I think I’d rather write another novel than another query! So no, it did not come easily to me. I did several Writer’s Digest query webinars (which is actually how I ended up signing with my agent) and found them to be so helpful. It’s also a nice way to get to know a little bit about the agent before you query them. It’s a bit of a strange scenario – both for the writer and for the agent – you’re taking a leap on a business partnership with someone you don’t know and have only spoken with once. With the webinar, you get to hear them speak and ask them questions, which is fantastic.
Amy: How many agents did you query for THE WITCH HUNTER? Did you receive immediate responses or did you have to wait a while for replies?
Virginia: I queried 17 agents. I had 9 requests, 6 rejections, 2 non-responses. These numbers sound good, but I received every single one of my rejections up front! I was beginning to think things were going to go very poorly for me, then the requests started coming in. I started querying end of August 2012 and signed with Kathleen at the end of October. Just under 8 weeks, thought at the time it felt like a lot longer. I had multiple heart attacks a day just checking my inbox.
Amy: Can you give a short summary of your call with your agent, Kathleen Ortiz? How did you know she was the right agent for you?
Virginia: Ah, the call. First, I have to tell you that I was terrified. My stomach hurt, my hands were shaking, the whole thing. Which is hilarious in hindsight, because Kathleen is so incredibly sweet. I had a list of questions to ask her, and I had done my research on the agency, her clients, her work as Director of Subsidiary Rights. But she did most of the talking, answered most of my questions before I even asked them. Here’s a funny thing: of all the agents I spoke with before accepting representation, her notes on my manuscript were the hardest to hear. She’s tough. But also so very good.
Amy: As most writers know, publishing is a very difficult business. What was the one thing you think you did to garner agent interest?
Virginia: Writing is a creative endeavor, but publishing is a business. It’s easy to forget that, because writing (and publishing!) is fun and fulfilling and for so many, a dream come true. But you still need to be professional. From the day I started writing, I treated it as my career. I put myself on a schedule and I worked that schedule – day in, day out. I put in the hours long before I thought about agents or book deals. By the time the book was ready to go out, I think the work showed. And the work doesn’t stop when you get an agent or a book deal. In fact, it gets harder. If you establish a rock-solid work ethic from the beginning, it will serve you well down the line.
Amy: Was there ever a time you thought about giving up on your writing dream? If so, what motivated you to keep writing?
Virginia: I’m new to writing – I’ve only been at it three years. I’ve written things in the past – for work, for school, small things for fun – but this was my first try at a novel. I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew that “what the hell am I doing?” feeling well: before I became a writer, I was a dot commer – back in the late 90s when the industry had just started. At the time, none of us knew what we were doing, none of us had any experience because there was no experience to be had! But we were all in it for the same reason: we wanted to try something new, do something different, see if we could make a business succeed. I did three startups from the ground up: two succeeded, one failed. I learned so much in the process, and that entrepreneurial mindset was one I carried over into writing. Be clear on your goals, be focused, and work, work, work. You may not know what you’re doing, but that’s okay. If you keep at it, you’ll figure it out. There’s really no substitute for good old-fashioned hard work.
Virginia Boecker was born in St. Louis, grew up in Amsterdam, Boston, and Dallas, and has since lived in Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and London. She now resides in Northern California where she spends her days writing, running, reading, and chasing around her two young children (and occasionally, her husband). She is represented by Kathleen Ortiz at New Leaf Literary and Media. THE WITCH HUNTER (Little, Brown, Spring 2015) is her first novel. For more information on Virginia, check out her website, Facebook page or follow her on Twitter.