Every once in a while after I read someone’s responses to my W.O.W. questions, I want to reach through the internet and hug them. Why? Because there is something about their journey that I identify with and can appreciate. With today’s featured author, Jessica Lawson, I wanted to do just this – reach out, give her a squeeze, and tell her “thank you for sharing.” Jessica spent a lot of time in the query trenches and had her ups and downs. She had a ton of great ideas (and many manuscripts) but rejection was a regular thing until she finally wrote the right story and connected with her perfect agent. What Jessica’s odyssey taught me was that belief in your writing, and wanting to improve your craft, are the true keys to success.
Today I hope you all will be inspired by Jessica’s journey…
Amy: I always love it when an author takes a chance and puts a new spin on a beloved book. Were you at all nervous about taking on a classic like THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER and making it into your own unique story?
Jessica: I love Mark Twain’s work so much! His level of writing is so far beyond mine that I actually wasn’t nervous (at first) about playing around with his characters because it felt more like I was writing fan fiction for fun, and I didn’t necessarily expect to land an agent. I had written so many manuscripts before this one, and I think I was just in the zone of trying to write a solid story and have fun doing it… after I got a book deal, then was I nervous? You bet! And I still am. I know there are hard-core Twain lovers who may not appreciate me fiddling with the storyline of such a beloved tale. I just hope everyone knows that it comes from a place of extreme admiration for the original.
Amy: How many completed manuscripts did you query before THE ACTUAL AND TRUTHFUL ADVENTURES OF BECKY THATCHER?
Jessica: Um…that would eight. Eight completed manuscripts: 1 women’s fiction, 2 YA, and 5 MG novels. That’s within a three-year period (Fall 2009 to Summer 2012), so you can probably tell that revision wasn’t my strong suit. Even though each of those manuscripts got partial and/or full requests, there were no agent bites and I was always too excited by a new story idea to stick with querying long, or to revise and keep pitching the same story. So, up until the last few manuscripts when I got critique partners and started going about things in a more serious way, my approach was to take the mistakes I’d made on my previous projects and apply the lessons learned to my next story (instead of trying to rework a manuscript’s flaws). My lack of attachment to manuscripts worked for me in terms of getting lots of writing experience with different types of stories, but my approach has definitely changed. I hope my stories are improving as a result of taking more time and care with characters, plot, and themes.
Amy: Did you have critique partners or beta readers that helped you polish it? If so, how did that influence your writing process?
Jessica: Yes! I have four wonderful critique partners that gave valuable input. They saw early drafts, helped me identify plot holes, and were so supportive of my protagonist’s voice from the get-go, which was important for this particular story (my version of Becky is very different from Twain’s version, so getting that thumbs-up on a different voice was imperative for me). These are the women who keep me motivated to get the heart of the story right and not settle for “good enough.”
Amy: Did your query for THE ACTUAL AND TRUTHFUL ADVENTURES OF BECKY THATCHER come easily or did it go through many drafts?
Jessica: It came fairly easily. I always write out query-style summaries at the beginning of my writing process for new manuscripts, so I have something to guide me if I get a bit lost in the story—I can refer back and say, “Why was I so excited about this idea? Where was I going with all of this?” That said, I tended to tweak my query as I sent out batches, so there were slight differences based on whether or not I’d gotten requests using certain phrasing, etc.
Amy: How many agents did you query for THE ACTUAL AND TRUTHFUL ADVENTURES OF BECKY THATCHER? Did you receive immediate responses or did you have to wait a while for replies?
Jessica: I queried 29 agents and got some responses within days, some within weeks. I had to wait awhile on most of the requests. In fact, when I got my first offer, the agent that I ended up signing with hadn’t responded yet, and she was one of the first that I queried. I also entered several contests (Miss Snark’s First Victim, Operation Awesome, WriteOnCon, etc.) and got requests that way. I had been on the query train for 10 weeks before getting an offer. My first offer came as a result of WriteOnCon (yay for ninja agents!) and then I contacted other agents who had the full manuscript.
Amy: Can you give a short summary of your call with your agent, Tina Wexler? How did you know she was the right agent for you?
Jessica: I was so nervous! She was professional, but so friendly, and I knew I had met my match when the discussion drifted to 1980s television sitcoms like Growing Pains. Honestly, Tina’s sales record spoke for itself, and I was so pleased to find such a warm, caring, editorial book lover behind those numbers.
Amy: As most writers know, publishing is a very difficult business. What was the one thing you think you did to garner agent interest?
Jessica: I think it was a combination of finding the right voice, having an easily pitched hook (origin story/retelling of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), and luck. I got very lucky, something that wouldn’t have happened if I had given up after manuscript number two or three (or six or seven J). Part of this business is having your query land in the right agent’s inbox at the right time and not giving up because of rejections.
Amy: Was there ever a time you thought about giving up on your writing dream? If so, what motivated you to keep writing?
Jessica: I never thought of giving up because I always set my expectations low. My hopes were sky-high, but my expectations? I kept them in check and considered writing to be a personal skill that I wanted to improve upon. I think that approach made it much easier to handle rejections. In a way, I was expecting them, so anything deviating from a form rejection was a pleasant surprise. And, as tends to be the case, when my hopes/goals shifted from getting published to writing the very best book I could at the time, that’s when I started to get personalized rejections (gold for the querying writer!) and revise/resubmit emails from agents. And my kids (I have two young ones and two teenage stepchildren), of course, are motivation. In a cheesy way, I wanted so badly to show them first hand that hard work and perseverance can bring amazing things and “if you can dream it, you can be it.”
In 1860, eleven-year-old Becky Thatcher is the new girl in town, determined to have adventures like she promised her brother Jon before he died. With her Mama frozen in grief and her Daddy busy as town judge, Becky spends much of her time on her own, getting into mischief. Before long, she joins the boys at school in a bet to steal from the Widow Douglas, and Becky convinces her new best friend, Amy Lawrence, to join her.
Becky decides that she and Amy need a bag of dirt from a bad man’s grave as protection for entering the Widow’s house, so they sneak out to the cemetery at midnight, where they witness the thieving Pritchard brothers digging up a coffin. Determined to keep her family safe (and to avoid getting in trouble), Becky makes Amy promise not to tell anyone what they saw.
When their silence inadvertently results in the Widow Douglas being accused of the graverobbery, Becky concocts a plan to clear the Widow’s name. If she pulls it off, she might just get her Mama to notice her again and fulfill her promise to Jon in a most unexpected way . . . if that tattle-tale Tom Sawyer will quit following her around.
Jessica Lawson is a member of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of SCBWI and her work has appeared in Stories For Children, The Motherhood Muse, The Denver Post, and Parenting Journals. She enjoys living/playing in the mountains of Colorado with her husband and children, and has to seasonally inform the landlord about bear damage to the trash bin at the end of her driveway. She writes middle grade, lots of to-do lists, and songs about diapers.