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.
Sara 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.