Every writer has their own path to publication. Some paths are long and winding. Others are a straight shot. No matter the tale, the journey always involves ups and downs, caution signs, and for some, serious roundabouts, but what always remains is the writer’s commitment to their craft and their enduring dream to see their work on bookshelves one day.
In bringing you the W.O.W. series, I hope as a writer you will learn that no dream is unfounded. That with time, patience, perseverance, and commitment to your craft, it is possible to cross that finish line and share your story with the world.
Today, I am pleased to share Sarah Henson’s writing journey…
Amy: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
Sarah: I’m one of those people who has always wanted to be a writer. I wrote my first story when I was four. My grandmother used to read James Herriot’s children’s books to me (specifically, THE CHRISTMAS DAY KITTEN and THE MARKET SQUARE DOG), and I decided I was going to be the American James Herriot. I wanted to be a veterinarian, lion-tamer, ballerina, and astronaut—all concurrently, of course—and write about my experiences. Writer turns out to be the only profession that stuck!
Amy: Your book tackles some important issues and has dark themes. What inspired you to write DEVILS WITHIN?
Sarah: I’m sad to say that DEVILS WITHIN was inspired by real events. I read an article about a ten-year-old boy shooting his white supremacist leader father, and all I could think was “what has to happen to a kid to reach that point, especially so young?” and “how do you come back from something like that?” So I started doing research, learning how hate groups recruit and operate and why people join them. I’m from the south, the breeding ground of the KKK, so I’m no stranger to racism, but I never understood what draws someone to that kind of hate.
The more I learned, the more the main character, Nate, took shape in my mind. I wanted others to see how easy it is to get stuck doing the wrong thing, how important it is to form your own opinions and beliefs, not just the ones you’ve grown up hearing, and how it’s never too late to change.
Amy: I read in your bio that you are an attorney. Did any of your legal background help with writing this book?
Sarah: Definitely! I spent the beginning of my career practicing criminal defense and appeals, and family law, which absolutely come into play in DEVILS WITHIN. It helped knowing how long trials actually last (much longer than Law and Order would lead you to believe!), and some the laws regarding minors’ rights. But I would say the piece of my legal background that helped most was knowing how to research. Also contrary to legal TV shows, most of being an attorney is effectively researching and writing.
The majority of the information that helped shape this book came from the Southern Poverty Law Center (www.splcenter.org). They have amazing resources such as their hate map, which shows every hate group across the country (currently 892 hate groups in the US), as well as an updated list of hate incidents. Every hate incident in the book is based on something that actually occurred. I went to law school in Montgomery, Alabama, where the SPLC is located, so it helped knowing that resource was available.
Amy: Are you one of those people who had an easy time writing a query or did it take several tries before you landed on your final version?
Sarah: I’m one of those weird writers who actually kind of enjoys writing a query letter. When I started getting serious about writing, I spent a lot of time reading the Query Shark archives and reading and critiquing in Absolute Write’s Query Letter Hell. I learned more by reading other people’s queries than I ever could have by posting my own—both queries that worked and those that didn’t.
I also liked to write the query before I wrote the book. It seems backwards, but I found it’s easier to focus on the main plot and tension when that’s all you have, before you muddy the book with subplots and side characters. I’d go back and edit once I finished the book, and then post in QLH for outside opinions because your brain is really good at filling in plot or logic gaps. So I went through 3-4 drafts before landing on a version I was happy with.
I think the main thing to remember when query drafting is that you’re never going to please everyone. There were always people who hated my queries, even the one that landed my agent. The main goal of a query is to entice an agent to read more. Once you’re happy with it, send it!
Amy: Do you work with critique partners? If so, how do they help shape your stories?
Sarah: Absolutely! Good critique partners are invaluable! My CPs have pointed out logic flaws, plot problems, and character inconsistencies—things I tend to miss because I’m too close to the story. CPs are also wonderful at keeping me motivated. I like to break the rules and edit as I write (if I wait until the end, I get too overwhelmed at all the work that needs to be done and start procrastinating), so I send chapters to my CPs in installments. Nothing motivates me to keep writing like someone clamoring for the next chapters. And like I said with queries, reading other writers’ work has improved my own writing. It’s always easier to spot a flaw in someone else’s story, which often leads me to uncovering the same kind of problems in my own. My CPs are some truly talented writers. Reading their beautiful words has pushed me to be a better writer.
Amy: From beginning (first draft) to end (signing contract), how long was the process of getting a deal for DEVILS WITHIN?
Sarah: I wrote the first words of DEVILS WITHIN way back in the beginning of March 2014. It’s kind of shocking to look back through my drafts and realize how long it’s been! I worked on it for over a year—the longest it’s ever taken me to draft a novel. It went through about seven drafts before landing on the final version in May 2015 when my agent thought it was ready to go on submission.
We subbed to the first round of editors in May and had several close calls, but no bites. In October 2015, we went out on a second round. Around mid-November, an editor sent my agent a very excited email gushing about how much she was loving the book. The whole process from that first email to an offer took about three months. Then finally, on January 14, I got THE email. An offer!! Details were finalized and the announcement went out on February 4, but I didn’t sign the contract until July 2016. It’s one of those weird quirks of publishing that no one tells you about until you’re in the middle of it, but it’s more like buying a house than a car. I also review publishing contracts for a living, and I’ve seen contracts that weren’t signed until the book was through edits and ready for production! So if that happens to you, it’s totally normal! All told, DEVILS WITHIN took about two and a half years from idea to signed contract.
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: I did the only things that were within my control: wrote the best book I could, and kept a good attitude. So much of this business relies on luck and timing. The only parts of it we really have any say over is how we write, and how we act. If either of those two components are missing, you’re going to have a harder time getting agent interest.
Amy: What can you tell us about “your call” with your agent, Mandy Hubbard? How did you know she was the right fit for you?
Sarah: Oh man, I was SO nervous during The Call! I’m much better in writing, which is actually one way I knew Mandy was a good fit for me, because she initially offered through email. That may sound silly, but it made me comfortable from the outset. I’d heard plenty of agent horror stories, so I had a list of things I was looking for in an agent. Someone I was comfortable with, who understood my writing and what I was trying to do, who could push me to be the best writer I could be, and who knew the industry and could help me achieve my dreams.
I’d already gotten a glimpse of how Mandy worked. She’d requested a Revise and Resubmit on the manuscript I initially queried. She was super excited about my book and had all these ideas for ways to make it better. She sent a 6 page edit letter! It was daunting, but also invigorating. She saw what I was trying to do with the story and helped me elevate it. I loved how hands on she was, and even though I was nervous during The Call, she put me totally at ease. I clicked with her instantly and haven’t looked back. Four years later and I’m still confident I made the right decision!
Amy: If you were doing a book signing and met a writer who was about to give up on their publishing dream, what would you say to them?
Sarah: Publishing is about tenacity. I thought about giving up so many times. It’s easy to look around and see other writers’ successes and get discouraged. But their path to publication is not your path, and what you don’t always see—what we’re not so great at talking about—is other writers’ failures.
So here are my failures: DEVILS WITHIN may be my debut novel, but it’s not my first novel; it’s my fifth. I wrote two manuscripts that were absolute garbage before writing the one that landed my agent. And that one still didn’t sell. Neither did the next one. It took those four failed manuscripts, though, for me to free myself up to write the one that did sell. Over 120 rejections from agents and editors before one agent and one editor said yes. DEVILS WITHIN will release almost exactly 9 years from the day I started writing my first novel, and 30 years after I declared I wanted to be a writer.
If publishing is truly your dream, you can’t give up. It doesn’t matter how many years it takes, or how many rejections you receive. I’ve learned from each manuscript I’ve written, and I’m still learning and growing. Much like the Goonies, writers never say die.
S.F. Henson was born and raised in the deep south. She graduated from Auburn University with a degree in Animal Science, which she put to great use by attending law school. Her law degree has gotten some mileage, though, giving her the experience to write about criminals and other dark, nefarious subjects. She lives beside a missile test range in Huntsville, Alabama with her husband, dog, two oddly named cats, and, of course, the missiles that frequently shake her house. For more on Sarah, check out her website or follow her on Twitter (@sfhwrites) or Facebook.