“No query or pitch is ever perfect on the first draft.” I love this line from today’s W.O.W. with Sarah Henning. Sometimes we think we can get it all done in one attempt, but as Sarah points out “there’s always tweaking to be done.” The key thing to remember is revision is important. It can take quite a bit of massaging before your manuscript is ready to be sent out into the world, but once it’s done you’ll be grateful for the experience.
Many thanks to Sarah for sharing her writing journey today…
Amy: You’ve had a prolific journalistic career writing and editing for The Palm Beach Post and The Lawrence Journal-World. What made you decide to make the jump to writing fiction?
Sarah: I’d actually always wanted to write fiction—I’d written several “books” as a child and teen— but I’m very practical and attracted to stability and, so, I’d talked myself into journalism as a much smarter career choice. But the thing is, you can’t escape your passion. It’s not as simple as trying to reassign it. I couldn’t escape the fact that I wanted to write fiction. And so, the second I graduated from college and got my first full-time journalism job, I started in on a book, wishing I hadn’t waited so long.
Amy: Was DEAD MEAT your first completed manuscript?
Sarah: Nope, not at all. It was the third one I’d completed as a post-college adult. I wrote two and then took a few years off to have my oldest child. When he was about one, I started revising the second of those manuscripts and querying it and then started in on DEAD MEAT.
Amy: Did you have critique partners or beta readers that helped you polish DEAD MEAT? If so, what did they add to the process?
Sarah: Oh, man, I have so many people to thank for looking at that manuscript. But the big kahuna is Rebecca Coffindaffer. She was my mentor in the very first Pitch Wars contest put on by Brenda Drake. Becca helped me refine DEAD MEAT just enough that I was able to get four offers and then sign with Rachel Ekstrom of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency.
Amy: Are you one of those people who has an easy time writing a query or does it take several tries before you land on the one you want to send?
Sarah: I actually have a really easy time with queries. I’ve been a professional copy editor since 2003, and, when I worked in newspapers, a big part of that job was to write headlines, subheads and cutlines. To write those, a copy editor has to be able to summarize the story in just a few words, phrases or sentences. In reality, that is what a query letter is, only in long form. So, I think my career in newspapers made it very easy for me to write both queries and pitches. And I often help friends with their queries and pitches, because there are some very good writers who have a hard time distilling their work into such a short summation. That said, no query or pitch is ever perfect on the first draft. There’s always tweaking to be done.
Amy: How many agents did you query for DEAD MEAT? Did you receive instantaneous response or did you have to wait for requests/rejections?
Sarah: I queried 38 agents, including the people who requested DEAD MEAT through Pitch Wars. I had requests for 16 fulls and 7 partials and then I ended up with four offers. The thing about DEAD MEAT is that it has a very distinctive opening line (Funny fact: Human flesh sears just as easily as lamb. Crisp skin on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside.). Most agents knew right away if it was for them or not!
Amy: What can you tell us about “your call” with your agent, Rachel Ekstrom? How did you know she was the right fit for you?
Sarah: Rachel is an amazingly enthusiastic person and not in a fake way. She is bubbly and smart and soooooo knowledgeable about the industry. I’d talked to three other agents before I talked to Rachel and then I talked with three more after Rachel, and while they were all amazing and I would’ve been lucky to sign with any of them, Rachel’s spunk, humor, intelligence and mystery smarts bowled me over.
My “call” with her was actually in the afternoon and that morning I’d gotten my first offer from another agent. In between, I sent out my “I have an offer” emails to every agent who needed to know other than Rachel. I didn’t know if she was going to offer to me, but it didn’t feel right to email her two hours before we were scheduled to talk and tell her I had an offer.
Anyway, I went into the phone call not really knowing if it was “the call” or if it was one where we just talked about my work (which had happened to me two times previously). From the very first moment I heard her voice, I knew Rachel loved my book. Not only did she read it ASAP (I sent her the full on a Thursday night, she emailed about a phone call on a Sunday and we talked on a Monday afternoon), but she loved it, already had a list of editors she wanted to send it to and couldn’t wait to talk to me about what else I was working on and my literary vision. She offered to me and I felt like a jerk telling her that I’d already had an offer that morning, but I knew right away that she was probably going to be it for me. And she was. I love her and I’d recommend anyone who writes in her wheel house.
Amy: As most writers know, publishing is a very difficult business. What was the one thing you think you did to garner agent interest?
Sarah: Honestly, my first offer didn’t come off of Pitch Wars, it came from an agent who I’d happened to send DEAD MEAT to outside of the contest. And who happened to offer the Monday after the contest ended. That said, I think being part of that contest was a game-changer for me. It introduced me to someone who helped me perfect the book (Becca) and it gave me a chance to stand out away from the query inbox to Rachel and other agents. Plus, because of the way the format works, agents can see if other agents are interested because all the comments/requests are public, so it adds a layer of urgency.
That said, I think it’s important to understand that contests aren’t your only way to go and that some manuscripts may not work in a contest format. Mine did specifically because of the way the opening page read and that was integral to the way the contest was laid out. My pitch was also really succinct and easy to understand. Again, some books are difficult to pitch in a way that does them justice in just 50 words.
Amy: What one piece of advice can you impart to aspiring writers to encourage them to keep working towards their dream?
Sarah: Keep going. Keep working. And remember why you write. It’s easy to get caught up in thinking, “Is there a market for this?” “Is this too much like X?” “Is this something that will be ‘over’ by the time I finish it?” etc. Yes, those things do matter in a business sense. But if you focus on them too much you’re just going to make yourself crazy trying to figure out a secret formula to getting an agent/deal/bigger sales. Don’t do it. Just write to write and everything else will fall into place.
Sarah Henning is a crime writer, recovering newshound, and word nerd of the highest order (aka a freelance copy editor). She has degrees in journalism and Spanish from the University of Kansas, and has worked for several news organizations, including The Associated Press, The Kansas City Star, The Charlotte Observer, and The Palm Beach Post. When she’s not hunched over her computer or curled up with a good book, Sarah is probably running ultramarathons, playing with her cherub-cheeked kids, or nagging her husband to eat more kale. She is repped by Rachel Ekstrom of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency. For more on Sarah, check out her website or follow her on Twitter.