The query. It is the one question I always ask about in my interviews. Why? Because in my opinion, after writing a great book, the query is the single most important thing you can do to get your foot in the publishing door.
Today, author, Melissa Grey, shares her writing odyssey, and one of the things that stood out in her interview was her comment about research before querying. I think many times writers throw their query out there without doing any research about which agent may be a good match for not only their book but them. But as Melissa’s success proves, if you do the legwork, you CAN connect with an amazing agent.
Many thanks to Melissa for sharing her writing journey…
Amy: When did you first begin seriously writing with the intent of wanting to be published?
Melissa: Publishing a novel has been a goal of mine since I was fourteen. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, so I spent years working on my writing, first through fan fiction (Harry Potter was my fandom of choice) and then through original short stories. It’s a craft, like any other, and it takes a lot of practice before you’re any good, so I took my time. I wrote my first book in 2009. It was a NaNoWriMo project, and honestly, it wasn’t great, but it was proof that I could produce something with a word count greater than 50,000.
Amy: When did you complete your first Young Adult manuscript?
Melissa: Funnily enough, THE GIRL AT MIDNIGHT is the first manuscript I consider truly completed. I wrote drafts of two books — one in 2009, another in 2012 — that had beginnings, middles, and ends, but I knew they weren’t publication worthy. They were like the first pancake (or two), and they never got past the first draft stage. With THE GIRL AT MIDNIGHT, I knew I had something that would make a compelling story that could also find a place in the market. I believed in it more than anything else I’d ever done, so I knew it was The One.
Amy: Did you have critique partners or beta readers that helped you polish THE GIRL AT MIDNIGHT? If so, how critical were they to the process of completing the manuscript?
Melissa: I don’t know how you’d write a book without several pairs of eyes helping you. I had two CPs who were in the trenches with me, working through plot points and character development. Then, since they knew all the twists and turns in the story, I had two beta readers who knew nothing about the book going into it. That was how I judged if my jokes were funny and if my plot twists were twisty. THE GIRL AT MIDNIGHT would not be the book it is without their feedback. The thing about writing stories is that you can’t read your own, so it’s impossible to be objective about it.
Amy: How laborious/frustrating was the query process for you?
Melissa: I had seven drafts of the manuscript before I felt it was worthy of being seen by agents and thirteen drafts of the query letter. I agonized over that letter to the point of losing sleep over it. Thankfully, I got my first offer of representation a month after sending out my first letter, so it wasn’t a long drawn out process. Getting rejections is never easy, but I’m good at compartmentalizing. I filed the rejections away (mentally and physically) and focused on feeling good about the requests.
Amy: How many agents did you query for THE GIRL AT MIDNIGHT?
Melissa: About thirty. I sent them out in batches of ten over three weeks.
Amy: Did you receive instantaneous response or did you have to wait for the requests/rejections?
Melissa: The responses I got were all pretty speedy. The first rejection rolled in within hours and the first request from the query letter came in a week later. Three weeks after that, I got my first offer, so I informed the people who had requested material and those I’d queried within the past month (which, as it turns out, was all of them). Many passed when I gave them a one week deadline with the full manuscript, but five more offered representation. The whole shebang took about a month, so I’m very fortunate in that regard. I’ve been called many things, but patient has never been one of them.
Amy: As many writers know the publishing world is very hard to break into. What was the one thing you did to help garner agent attention?
Melissa: Research. I was very selective with who I queried. I made sure the people on my list were actively looking for both Young Adult fiction and fantasy, so I didn’t waste my time or theirs. My book is the first in a trilogy so I knew it might be a hard sell with all the trilogies crowding the market, so I had to be smart about things. I made sure the query letter was as strong as it could be before letting it out into the world — pitch contests were really helpful with that because they provide feedback from people who are unfamiliar with your story. If the pitch doesn’t inspire your audience to want to read more, it needs serious revising, which mine totally did.
Amy: What was your call like with your agent, Catherine Drayton? How did you know she was the right fit for you?
Melissa: Catherine is a lovely person, but — through no fault of her own — I was so intimidated by her! She’d been on my list of “dream agents,” which basically consisted of people with amazing track records that I was so sure would never want to give me the time of day, so when she offered, I was flabbergasted. She was so enthusiastic, but also incredibly focused on her plan for the book. During our first conversation, I realized she was the kind of person I needed in my corner. She’d help me kill my darlings when I had to, and fight tooth and nail to see my book succeed. I wanted someone who would push me when I really needed it, and who was interested in not just selling a book but in building a career. It was immediately apparent that Catherine was that person.
Amy: What one piece of advice can you impart to aspiring writers to encourage them to keep working towards their publishing dream?
Melissa: Don’t give up. Now, I don’t mean that you should put all your eggs in one basket or continue to query a manuscript that simply isn’t working, but rather, keep writing. Sometimes, you’ll write something and it won’t be great. And that’s okay. That’s necessary. You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince, and that saying holds true when it comes to your work. You will produce duds. You will write unmitigated crap. Sometimes, your jokes will fall flat, and your characters will be one-dimensional, and you plot twists will be more like straight lines. But if you write through it and maintain perspective, eventually, you’ll find your way.
Melissa Grey penned her first short story at the age of twelve and hasn’t stopped writing since. As an undergrad at Yale, she learned how to ride a horse and shoot a bow and arrow at the same time, but hasn’t had much use for that skill since graduating in 2008. She is represented by Catherine Drayton of InkWell Manangement, and her debut novel, THE GIRL AT MIDNIGHT, will be published by Delacorte Press/Random House in spring 2015. To learn more about Melissa, visit melissa-grey.com and follow her on Twitter @meligrey.