Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Dear Agent, Part I

I was talking to Jade about query letters and she said she'd be very interested to hear about my querying process. So here it is, over two parts. Part I gives you a overview of the writing and revising and initial researching process. Part II, tomorrow, will be a closer look at research, the queries I sent and to whom. I hope my experience will be of help to those of you about to jump on the querying merry-go-round.

When I told my YA teacher I was going to start querying, she hesitated. "That's rather soon," she said. It was June. I'd started Lharmell in March. She was right. But I didn't listen, of course. The process I'm about to relate will be very familiar to those of you who just did NaNoWriMo. The last thing you want is for someone to tell you to slow down, to take it easy, to ease up a little. You're living the dream! I didn't query as soon as I'd finished with the first draft, but it was rather soon after--too soon, really, but I was lucky and I seem to have landed on my feet. This is how it went.

In the last days of February I scribbled half a sentence on some scrap paper at work. When servant's mistress's betroth. dies suddenly, [scribble] they [scribble] to far off place where servant discovers [scribble]. I kept it, though I can hardly read it. On March 1, I began to write--serendipitously so on the first of the month. Only very recently had I begun to keep a writing journal, and in it I wrote the date, word count, and any snippets of dialogue or plot I was terrified of forgetting.

On March 8 the word count was 6,000 and the title was Bitter Wormwood. On the page after some scribbled notes about the Lharmellins, I listed four YA literary agents and the authors they represented: Jill Grinberg, Nathan Bransford, Barry Goldblatt and Kristen Nelson. I found them on authors blogs and their own blogs. I didn't do anything but write the names down and get back to the novel.

On March 9 the word count was 8,500. Sometime around the eleventh I brainstormed variations of the main male character's name:

Simian Finian Tergan Fergan Rudden Rodden Roddan Roddon Raddon Radden

I went with Rodden. Somewhere around this time the title changed to The Tors of Lharmell, and then simply to Lharmell.

March 15 I had 20,300 words. On March 16 I stumbled onto the Booktrust website where Patrick Ness was the writer in residence that month. I didn't know him and the Chaos Walking books from Adam at the time, and I only rediscovered his writing tips months later when I was researching him for an interview. This was one of the things he said:

Knowing the last line. I may not know the climax of my story or how I’ll get there, but I always know the last line, the last sentence or feeling that I’ll leave the reader with. I knew in The Crash of Hennington that it would be an image of a herd of rhinos leaving a burning city. No idea how I’d get there, but I knew that’s where I wanted to go. It gives me something to aim for over the long haul.

In my diary I excitedly wrote, THE LAST LINE!!! And then I scribbled out a few images and snatches of words and thought, that's it. That's how it ends. I don't think I would have gotten to the end so quickly or smoothly if I hadn't known the last line.

March 21, 24,800 words. March 27, 32,500 words. March 29, 35,000 words. April 2, 46,700 words; a list of things to be covered in a long conversation between Zeraphina and Rodden, one of my very favourite scenes to write that occurred right before the climax.

I didn't sleep much in the following days.

April 3, 48, 900.

April 8, 64,000 words; DONE!!! (First draft, completed in 39 days. I'm an edit-as-I-go writer. Every time I sit down to write I reread the previous day's passages. I'm not a "shitty first draft" sort of writer. If things aren't working, I can't leave it and go on because I don't know the mood my characters will be in. They may have just had a fight, which is likely because they're always fighting. The sequence of scenes and portrayal of characters in the final version are pretty much the same as they were in the first draft. Most of the revising happened at the line level.)

April 9. Things to check. What follows is a rather long To Do list, including edits, chapter summaries and drafting a letter to agents.

Because Lharmell is the first book in a planned trilogy I wanted to have thorough synopses of books two and three written, and at least some of book two, The Harmings, written before anything went out to anyone. So I spent a mint on printing copies of Lharmell to give to lots of lovely friends who volunteered to critique it and launched myself into book two. The going was far slower. On April 20 I had just 1,500 words. I was not only writing book two, but editing book one in stages, writing synopses and planning the rest of the trilogy. On April 28 I had a synopsis of book one. I freely admit that I loathe writing synopses. Everything comes out wooden and I want to stab myself every time I write "and then". Which is often.

At the start of May I had 14,400 words for The Harmings, and I started blogging. Writing one, I mean. I'd been lurking on several for a few months. Blogging didn't seem to have an immediate effect on my word count as I see the next day, May 4, I had 20,000 words.

Then the word count ground to a halt. I went on holiday to Vanuatu. I started reviewing for magazines. There are notes for The Harmings all through May, but no increase in word count. Then, at the end of the month, I got Lharmell back from my teacher and feedback from several friends, and rewrites began in earnest. Which meant, of course, that I began planning several other novels. None of them stuck, thank goodness, and on June 22 I sent out my first batch of letters to agents. It was a Monday night, if I remember correctly, and I'd had three glasses of red wine and had been rather distractedly watching something on television when I'd suddenly thought TO HELL WITH IT. I'll do it now!

The next morning there were three emails in my inbox.

Tomorrow, Part II: The letters I wrote, how I researched agents, and how I kept my sanity throughout the querying process.

One last thing: It's good to approach agents of authors who write similar books to you, but it's not always obvious who represents them. I sent a few emails to authors, asking about their representation. Most didn't reply, but one lovely lady did, and we started emailing back and forth. It was great to talk to someone on my side of the equator who'd cracked it overseas. Eventually I asked her if she'd like to take a look at Lharmell and perhaps write a short recommendation that I could put in a query letter. It's not critical, but if you can get a recommendation from a published author, it may help you get a leg up out of the slush. It's also thrilling when someone in the biz gets behind your work. Makes those cold, dark writing mornings that little less lonely!


  1. Very intrigued about this last line - not to mention impressed by your super-rapidly-expanding wordcount in March/April!

  2. This is really interesting, and I definitely appreciate hearing about the journey. I seriously can't wait to read Lharmell. And go you with that word count!

  3. Very interesting post!
    Can't wait till tomorrow!

    The last line thing is true, I always know where I'm going when writing. It's easier to get to that point if you know where you want to get.


  4. That was awesome, thanks! The last line thing was interesting and I realised that's something that I do. I have no idea what happens in the middle but I know where I want to end it.
    Looking forward to the rest.

  5. I got to a point in your post and thought, "I just wrote almost this exact thing!" Minus the querying. And the details of word count. And...Well, anyway, thanks for posting this! I love reading about other people's process (which was a part of my own post. Oh, and I swear I didn't read yours first and copy!)

  6. No worries guys! I'm glad you found it interesting. I'm gonna go read your post now Chelle ;)

  7. Thanks for sharing Rhiannon, very interesting. I love seeing how others writers word counts go up and titles change etc. I have a hard time keeping track of my own which is why I like to blog about it, but really neat stuff.

  8. Very nice post. I'm looking forward to tomorrow's blog. Love the title, by the way.

  9. Thanks for sharing this process. Great post.

  10. Wow, you have a very detailed outline of your entire process. And that is a great idea to check with authors who write in your genre or similar to you who represents them. They may not feel the liberty to reveal that, but it doesn't hurt to try.

  11. I didn't figure out what the last line of SHATTERED was until about half way through the writing... But once I realized what it was - the rest of the story flowed out of me at a better pace than before.

    Oh God, and NOT to mention how Ay-MAY-ZING it was to actually write the last sentence. :-)

  12. Sara--OMG yes. "End of book one" is possibly the most fantabulous thing I've ever written in my life.