Chasing my crazy dream in the writing world…

W.O.W. – Writer Odyssey Wednesday with Sara Biren March 30, 2016




For those of you familiar with this series, you may notice I’ve added a new question to my repertoire. This new question, “From beginning (first draft) to end (signing contract), how long was the process of getting a deal?” This question came about because I’ve had numerous conversations with new writers who tell me that once they get an agent, they KNOW they’ll get a book deal.


As Sara’s answer to this question illustrates, the road to publication can be long and hard. And just because you get an agent, that does not necessarily translate right away to a book contract. Sara is a perfect example of someone who believed in her story and fought long and hard to make sure it made it to bookshelves.


Many thanks to Sara for sharing her path to publication today…




Amy: What drew you to write a Young Adult manuscript?


Sara: I have been studying writing since elementary school and mainly wrote short stories throughout college and graduate school. The main character of one of my thesis stories was a young woman looking back to her teen years, and one of my instructors (YA author Terry Davis) told me I had a voice for young adult. Three years later, after having a few short stories published in literary journals but mainly coming up short, I started a YA novel and it felt like coming home.




Amy: How many completed manuscripts did you query before one garnered interest?


Sara: I queried a manuscript called CLOUD 9 for a long time – probably too long – before submitting THE LAST THING YOU SAID.




Amy: Your novel, THE LAST THING YOU SAID, deals with friendship and grief. What was the one thing that ignited the idea behind the premise of the book?


Sara: I was following the journey of a local high school student who was fighting cancer, which brought back memories of the death of a friend at age 16 in a car accident. I started thinking about Luke’s friends and families and how tough it must be to watch him go through this. I wanted to write about grief and learning to live through it.




Amy: Did your query for THE LAST THING YOU SAID come easily or did it go through many revisions?


Sara: While I’d revised my query for CLOUD 9 a number of times (and learned a lot along the way), the query for THE LAST THING came very easily. I didn’t send it to many agents before I was offered representation from my first agent, and then I only had to revise it briefly after she left the industry three months later.




Amy: From beginning (first draft) to end (signing contract), how long was the process of getting a deal for THE LAST THING YOU SAID?


Sara: This is a long story. I started the novel in July of 2011 and didn’t finish the first draft until October of 2012. It was a tough book to write – very personal. I then had to perform reconstructive surgery on that draft, because I do not write chronologically. It was finally ready to query in late April of 2013, and I signed with my first agent, Becky Vinter, about six weeks later.


I revised over the summer and in September, Becky left the industry for another opportunity. I started the querying process again and signed with Steven Chudney in December of 2013.


We went on submission in mid-January of 2014. It September, it garnered some interest from Erica Finkel at ABRAMS – Amulet Books, who asked for a revision on spec. I completed that revision November 1, 2014, and it wasn’t until February of 2015 that it moved on in the acquisitions process. My deal was announced in early May of 2015 and I received the contract, signed by all parties, on August 3, 2015, more than four years after I’d started the book.




Amy: Did you have critique partners for THE LAST THING YOU SAID? If you did, how critical were they to your writing process?


Sara: Yes – and very critical! At the time I started writing, I was active in a critique group called MNYA Writers, a group in the Twin Cities area. They read three or four 30-page sections. I also had three critique partners who read and critiqued the entire novel – and several people have beta read as well. It’s so important to have others read your work with a critical – and objective – eye. Especially with this novel, I was so into the story that it’s not always easy to see the gaps.




Amy: What can you tell me about your call with your agent, Steven Chudney? How did you know he was the right fit for you?


Sara: Steven was my second agent, but I was super nervous for the call. He was definitely in the category of dream agent, to be honest. I’d queried him for CLOUD 9 and still have the extremely nice, personalized rejection email. I was thrilled that he’d shown interest in the book.


He set me at ease right away – by this time, we’d emailed numerous times – and had a great sense of humor. He really understood the story and connected to the manuscript. That’s so important. I needed someone who wasn’t going to give up on this story, and you can see by the fifteen months the book was on submission, he didn’t.




Amy: Was there ever a time you thought about giving up on your writing dream? If so, what motivated you to keep writing?


Sara: Never. In my third grade biography, I wrote that I wanted to be “an author of books.” This is a dream come true for me. There were years that my dream was put on hold, years when I focused on my career or when I had babies, but I never stopped dreaming. Writing is hard. Rejection is harder. But I never wanted to give up. My motto is to “keep moving forward.” Every day, I do at least one thing that keeps me moving in the right direction.




Amy: If you were speaking at a writing conference, what one piece of writing advice would you share?


Sara: When I was in high school, I attended week-long summer writing camps. One of my instructors there was Sandra Benítez, author of THE PLACE WHERE THE SEA REMEMBERS and other novels. She taught us this Latin phrase: Nulla dies sine linea – never a day without a line. Even if it’s only a snippet of an idea scribbled down on the back of a receipt, I strive for this. More importantly, though, I don’t beat myself up if it doesn’t happen or if the lines are crap. Sometimes life happens and makes it hard to get down that line. And sometimes that makes for more interesting writing later.





sarabirenSara Biren lives just outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her husband and their two children. A true Minnesotan, she is a fan of hockey, hotdish, and hanging out at the lake. She enjoys seeing live bands, watching movies with her family, and drinking coffee. Her love of cheese knows no bounds.


Sara is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Duluth, on the shores of beautiful Lake Superior, and earned a masters degree in creative writing from Minnesota State University, Mankato.


For more on Sara, check out her website or follow her on Twitter.


Monday Musings: Query Observations March 28, 2016

Filed under: Publishing,Query,writing craft — chasingthecrazies @ 10:38 am
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Between Sun vs. Snow and reading for the first round of Pitch Madness, I’ve looked at a ton of queries in the last few months. Today I want to share a few observations about what grabbed my attention and what made me pass.




A Great Hook


Many of the entries I ended up rating high had some sort of great hook.  A short beginning sentence that set the tone for the rest of the query. What was even better was when the hook paid off, adding tension and conflict to the story and creating a need to want to read more.


In my opinion that’s the key to a great query-making the reader curious. You want to leave them with unanswered questions. Create a sense of urgency so they want to read on. If you can build this into your query, an agent will likely request.




Conflict and Stakes


I can’t tell you how many queries I read that told me the basics of the story but gave absolutely no sense of what was at stake for the protagonist. Sure, it’s great that they’re the only one on Earth who can save a mysterious alien planet, but what will it cost them to help? What will force them to make difficult choices? This creates tension and makes me what to read on.




World Building


I am in total awe of people who write epic fantasy or sci-fi. The worlds they create are amazing, and I’m always drawn into a book if the setting is unique and something I haven’t seen before. With that being said, I have to confess that I know how hard it is to explain it all in your query…so don’t. Give hints as to what the world looks like in its basic form, but don’t use your whole query to tell me all about it. What I really want to know is what’s at stake for the main character, their goals, as well as the challenges they face in “their” world.




Comp Titles


I’m on the fence with this one, but I feel like I need to include it. When I’ve been hesitant about selecting an entry it always seems I’m swayed if the author has picked good comp titles. This gives me a better sense of the book’s tone. For agents, it gives them an idea as to where your story would fit on the bookshelves. But I will also add that comp titles should never be mega bestsellers (like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games). I’ve heard agents say they should be mid-list titles that you can see your book sitting next to at the store. So if you decide to use comp titles, make sure they are a good fit.




Differences Between a Query and Synopsis


I saw quite a few entries that read more like a synopsis of the story than a query. Here is the difference:


A query should be a short overview of your story. It should give a sense of character, conflict and cost. What it should not do is tell the ending.


With a synopsis you’re giving a full-blown account of every aspect of the story: beginning, middle, and end. In the synopsis you are expected to reveal the ending.



One last note…


Have someone who knows NOTHING about your book read your query. If they’re excited to know more about the story, you’ve got a winner. If they have more questions than answers, you should re-work your query until it makes sense for the reader.



These are only a few common things I saw in the over 300 queries and pitches I’ve read in the last few months. If you have any questions about what I’ve shared, or want to know more about what I loved in the queries I selected, please leave a comment!




Monday Musings: When All You Want To Do is Quit March 21, 2016

Filed under: Blog,writing,writing craft — chasingthecrazies @ 7:14 am
Tags: , , , ,



Since January my writing life has been a non-stop whirlwind. Between coordinating and running Sun versus Snow, working on copyedits for a major revision, slush reading for Pitch Madness, and taking care of all the other things non-writing in my life, I’m pretty close to burned out.



In my weakest moments over the last months I’ve wondered if writing was really the right thing for my life at this moment. There are so many things vying for my time, and it feels like failure if I’m not writing at least for a few minutes every day. On certain days I go to bed feeling like a wreck because I’m so guilt-ridden for not opening my latest draft and doing some kind of work.



I think the breaking point was most recently when I was sitting on a bus with twenty screaming sixth graders trying to actually fix a scene that I already knew was broken. Honestly, if I wasn’t a pretty private person I think I would have broken down and cried right there. It took about an hour of zoning out and listening to music that I finally had an epiphany moment.



Here it is…There is NO ONE out there pushing you to write-except YOU. That creature called self-doubt you’re battling is YOU. So my answer is this – give yourself a FREAKING BREAK. Log out of social media. Close your laptop. Put aside anything writing related and do something else. Anything else to take your mind off of all the things you THINK you’re missing, doing wrong, not up to task on.



Stop comparing yourself to your friend who just signed with an agent. Or sold her book for xx dollars. That is his/her story not yours. Your time may not be now but it’s coming. Be patient. Wait. Give yourself time to walk away. Take a breath. Forget everything in publishing that is wearing you down. So you didn’t get 500 words today. OK. The world won’t end. Maybe tomorrow you’ll get a 1,000 and make up for it. The reality is that the only thing that matters is you and your well-being.



Remind yourself that you have your own path and that torturing yourself about what comes next is only hurting you. If it’s helpful, take a social media break. When writing feels like a chore, step back and take a day, a week, a month to recharge. Don’t do what I did. Burn the candle so fervently that when you get to the end there’s absolutely NOTHING left. That not only harms you, but everyone in your world. It also doesn’t allow you to make rational decisions, because if all you want to do is quit, you’re in the wrong mindset. You’re so worked up and twisted you don’t realize you’re not only giving up your dream but also giving up on yourself.



Please don’t get so low that you can’t dig your way out. Talk to friends in the writing community. Reach out and ask them to honestly talk about their low points (because I guarantee we’ve all had them). Then when you realize you’re not alone, give yourself time to reenergize. The words will always be there and quitting will not solve your problems. It will only delay your path, and I know in the end that’s the last thing any of us want.



What about you? Have you ever felt like quitting? What kept you motivated to continue writing? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.






W.O.W. – Writer Odyssey Wednesday with Jilly Gagnon March 9, 2016







I love humor in Young Adult fiction, and I wish we saw more of it. In today’s W.O.W., Jilly Gagnon shares how humor always finds a way into her work. There are so many facets to building an interesting main character. By including humor, as Jilly points out, we can see how characters process and relate to the world around them, which I think is so important when writing Young Adult fiction.




Many thanks to Jilly for sharing her writing journey today…





Amy: What drew you to write a Young Adult manuscript?



Jilly: Honestly, I think the most important, formative years for almost anyone are the teenage years. There’s such an incredible emotional intensity at that age, and it means that even the smallest thing can have huge repercussions for the choices you make, and for how you see yourself. Obviously people grow and change a lot beyond that–I’m by no means the same person I was in high school today. But I think my sense of my place in the world, what kind of person I am and where–or whether–I fit in, was shaped almost entirely between ages 15 and 18.



As a writer, that makes those years really rich, exciting ground. Your characters can grow and respond in ways that adults–who are more set in our ways–never would.



And that emotional intensity extends to how you read; that indescribable feeling when a book feels like it was written just for you? For me that always happened when I was a young adult. The idea that I could create that experience in a reader is really exciting.





Amy: How many completed YA manuscripts did you query before one garnered interest?



Jilly: Just one (it’s currently in the vault), but I completed two other novels that fell awkwardly between “literary” and “commercial” adult fiction before I realized that my voice, and the stories that interested me, made more sense in the YA world. So I definitely spent some time in the trenches!





Amy: I love that you are a comedy writer. Do you think humor will always find a way into your manuscripts?


Jilly: I don’t think I’d know how to keep it out! Seriously, sarcasm is my default setting–it’s how my family has always expressed love.



That said, as a writer, I’m super interested in character and voice, and I think a person’s sense of humor, the way they see and comment on the world, is one of the best ways to let readers in–I love what it can show about what’s going on in a character’s mind.



More importantly, I think humor is such an important way for us to process things. There’s a saying, that people either see life as one grand tragedy, or one long comedy. I’m definitely in the latter camp. Adding humor even to dark topics is to me not only a relief, it’s an important way to work through them, at least for me.




Amy: Did your query for #famous come easily or did it go through many revisions?



Jilly: It was pretty straightforward–the idea is loosely based on the “Alex from Target” story, and what might happen if you suddenly had that sort of instantaneous, unearned fame. I think all the major themes and plot points were there from the very beginning!





Amy: Did you have critique partners for #famous? If you did, how critical were they to your writing process?



Jilly: I had both my longtime critique partner, Jen Russ, and my amazing writing group, Carrie-Anne DeDeo, Ken Marden, Jillian Melnyk, and Ben Miller, weighing in on the manuscript.



They were all absolutely indispensable–I’m very lucky to have a writing group where everyone comes with a slightly different set of strengths, and therefore spots different things the manuscript needs. You get so close to a story at some point that it’s hard to know what’s working–or whether anything is working–and what’s not.



And Jen and I have been doing full on MS swaps for a few years, now. She’s seen so many versions of all my stories, and yet she’s still impressively capable of seeing a new version with fresh, critical eyes. Seriously, I cannot thank all of them enough.





Amy: What can you tell me about your call with your agent, Heather Alexander?



Jilly: Heather is amazing and possibly my spirit animal. That’s probably the most important thing to know about her. That, and she has great hair.



By the time we had “the call,” we’d already spent an entire weekend together at Squam Lake–it’s an amazing SCBWI retreat for a small group of writers, and you really have a chance to get to know the people there, including the mentors. There was a lot of wine, and a lot of exciting, in-depth conversations about my writing goals and the manuscript I was working on at that time, and I just felt like she was a person I could see spending an entire career with.



Needless to say I was thrilled to learn, a few months later (after a more formal submissions process), that she felt the same way! It was like that moment when you learn that your crush likes you back–you can’t stop smiling, even though you know you look like a total goof.





Amy: Was there ever a time you thought about giving up on your writing dream? If so, what motivated you to keep writing?



Jilly: I’ve never really considered giving up on writing, but there was a point where I had to change my expectations pretty significantly. Through most of my twenties, I worked low-stress jobs–I managed a boutique, waited tables, and nannied a couple awesome kids–specifically so I would have more time and mental energy to focus on my writing. But a few years back, I just felt stuck. My writing wasn’t progressing along the lines I wanted it to, at least not as quickly as I’d hoped, and the thing about those jobs that was supposed to be a bonus–the extra time and flexibility they gave me–was starting to feel like a burden. I wasn’t working as hard as I had been, and I just felt…well, stuck is the best word, even if it is redundant!



So I went on some interviews and ended up taking a full-time marketing position. And counterintuitively, at least to me, that motivated me in a way I hadn’t felt in ages. I think I knew from the start that the job wasn’t a great fit, and the discipline of it–every day, week in week out–made that so much harder to deal with. Think of it as a wool sweater that’s a size too small; you can’t stop noticing it constraining you, rubbing every part of you the wrong way.



That feeling made me want to succeed more than ever before, because I knew that career path wasn’t going to make me happy on its own. I started waking up extra-early to write, taking freelance jobs after work (something I thought I’d have to give up), and jotting down ideas, or a few hundred words of a WiP, during my breaks.



I was once told by a writing professor that you shouldn’t try to be a writer unless you don’t think you can be anything else (he was warning us all about the difficulty we’d face). I think that job was the moment when I realized “shoot, I really can’t be anything else.”





Amy: What advice did you get early on in your career that you still use today?



Jilly: One of my first mentors was the amazing, talented E. Jean Carroll. She’s always encouraged me to try everything–she’s a fantastic cheerleader for her friends, so whether I was considering writing a short humor piece, or an entire novel, she pushed me to see it through.



I think the advice–to try anything and everything–was, and is, incredible for two reasons. As writers, we all get stuck sometimes. Trying lots of different things gives you a great way to feel productive when the “main” thing just isn’t coming. But it also forces you to hone different aspects of your craft. You don’t use the same exact skills writing a marketing email as you do for a novel, but having both of those in your toolkit is really important.



That, and the advice I got from just about everyone I knew who had “made” it as a writer: to never give up. I don’t even know if it’s something you can learn, it might just be a stubbornness in your personality, but enduring in the face of literally hundreds of rejections will pay off if you just keep perfecting your craft, and trying new things, and generally working to improve your writing. I’m proof of that!




JillyHeadShots-12 croppedJilly Gagnon has been living in the Boston area since she graduated from Harvard, but she’ll always be a Minnesota girl at heart. When she’s not writing, she’s probably either deep in a video-game rabbit hole, talking to her cats like they understand her, or practicing her violin, which for some inexplicable reason (masochism) she took up less than a year ago.


Jilly’s short humor, personal essays, and op-eds have appeared in all kinds of places that it’s too tedious to list. In addition to young adult fiction, she also writes adult comedy books; her Choose Your Own Misery series, co-authored with Mike MacDonald, launched in 2016.


Visit Jilly at, find her on twitter: @jillygagnon, or connect with her on facebook:


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