Today I’m excited to have not one, but 4 debut authors here to share with us about their journeys to publication. Brooks Benjamin, Laura Shovan, Shari Schwarz, and Melanie Conklin show us there is no one way to connect with an agent and/or publisher. I hope their interviews will give you an extra boost of inspiration to keep on querying!
Not only that, this great group of writers are kicking off their #April12thMGshelf event right here. Be sure to take a moment to enter to win their 4 book prize package – one of each of their debut novels! Look for a link at the end of this post to enter. But first, read on for inspiration on queries, revision, and waiting. You are not alone in the journey!
What was your background in writing before you started writing the first draft of your debut?
Brooks Benjamin: I started writing screenplays in high school. I’d never taken any writing classes or anything. I just tried to mirror mine after the format I saw happening in movies. When I got to college I began reading a lot about story structure and character development. It wasn’t until 2013 when I tried to write my very first novel, but I think those years of practice in writing terrible scripts paid off.
Laura Shovan: I’ve always self-identified as a poet, though I write fiction and non-fiction as well. In addition to teaching English and creative writing, I spent a few years as a freelance features writer for my local edition of The Baltimore Sun before I started this book. Those journalism skills helped me sell a few non-fiction articles to Highlights magazine. Working on THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY overlapped with my time as editor of an amazing literary journal, Little Patuxent Review.
Shari Schwarz: My love for writing started at a very young age and in my fifth grade journal, I wrote a list of goals in the back of it. One was to write a children’s book. I never majored in writing, but I took creative writing and poetry classes in high school and college. Writing has always been a form of expression for me; from journaling and blogging to poetry and creative writing. It’s definitely an unbroken thread woven throughout my life and I love studying about the craft of writing now.
Melanie Conklin: COUNTING THYME was the third book I wrote. I had only been exploring fiction for about a year after a decade working as a product designer (I may have designed your toothbrush!). Reading has always been essential for me, and I even minored in English Literature in college, but it took me until age 34 to realize I wanted to write stories, too.
How many queries did you send out before you got your ‘YES’? Did you have any R&Rs or specific feedback that helped you shape your manuscript along the way?
Brooks Benjamin: I ended up sending out about 25-30 queries in the span of about four weeks. I never got an R&R or any detailed feedback that I used. Luckily I was in Pitch Wars that year under the guidance of Marieke Nijkamp (whose amazing book, THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS is out now) so she and my incredible critique partners were the ones who helped me shape and trim M7GLiT and get it query ready.
Laura Shovan: I’m almost afraid to look this information up. The first time I attended a children’s book writing conference was in 2003. Assuming I sent at least a few queries out each year, that adds up to a lot of queries. There was one agent along the way who suggested expanding my 30-page collection of poems in the voices of a fifth grade class into a full middle grade novel with an actual plot (!) I’ll always be grateful for that person’s advice. Because I’d been focused on the character’s voices for so long, my biggest challenge was coming up with a narrative arc that worked for the book. Most of the feedback I was getting from CPs and beta readers addressed weaknesses in overlying story. At one point, I threw out the entire plot and settled on the “Save Our School” storyline. It felt like a huge risk at the time, but putting Emerson Elementary in danger gave all of my characters an important issue to rally around. I think the book is more cohesive as a result.
Shari Schwarz: I started querying in March 2014 and by May had two R&Rs which greatly helped guide me as I revised my book over the next year. One suggestion was to change the story from 3rd person, past tense into 1st person, past tense and to tell it from each of the brother’s perspectives. That was a challenge, but I’m so glad I got to tell both brother’s stories in Lure Lake. I received 100 rejections (mostly from agents) over the course of a year, and in May 2015, I received my YES from editor, Ashley Gephart at Cedar Fort Publishing.
Melanie Conklin: I think my querying journey was fairly typical…which means I sent my very first queries within minutes of finishing my first VERY bad draft of a YA novel that was really a MG novel in disguise. That book has since been buried in my backyard. I collected a slew of kind rejections for that novel and the one that followed. With COUNTING THYME, I jumped the gun by tweeting in a Twitter pitch party and ended up revising all night so I could respond to some requests and query other agents. I received my first offer 3 days later, and accepted that offer (from Pete Knapp) two weeks after that!
How did you persevere during the ups and downs of the querying process?
Brooks Benjamin: I wrote and wrote and wrote. And I ate pizza. And spent time with my wonderful wife, Jackie. Also, I tried my best not to think about the query letters I sent out because once you hit send, there’s not a whole lot you can do.
Laura Shovan: Perseverance is the key word for me. I first met my agent, Stephen Barbara, at a SCBWI conference in 2008. I was just starting to write what became THE LAST FIFTH GRADE and he was excited about the concept. Four years later, when I had a draft I was happy with, I sent Stephen a “remember me?” letter. He requested the full manuscript and seemed interested, but our conversation never went anywhere. I emailed him every few months to say, “I think you’re the right person to represent the book.” Eighteen months later, Stephen read the revised manuscript and took me on as a client.
Shari Schwarz: I jumped in the deep end with both feet when I started querying and really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I knew there would be rejection coming, but 100 no’s? That was hard. Along the way, all of the amazing writers I met in person and online definitely helped me persevere and stay positive through a LOT of rejection. They even kept me from throwing the towel in a couple of times. I also went for long walks, cried and prayed when things got really bad. Reading others’ stories about their challenges along the path to publication is inspiring to me too. We’re all in this together and to succeed, we must keep writing and revising.
Melanie Conklin: I think my background as a product designer helped me handle the query process, although believe me, I DID stalk my inbox day and night. The only thing I found off-putting about querying was the lack of feedback early on. I knew I was ready for feedback from someone who knew more than I did, but that’s not what the querying process is for. That’s what critique partners are for! It was around that time that I joined my critique group and started beta reading a lot, which taught me a tremendous amount about craft. Also, crit partners are there for you when you land in the dumps. Rejection hurts. That’s normal. What makes writers special is that we keep trying.
What is the timeline like for your book from the time you wrote your first draft until publication?
Brooks Benjamin: I finished my first draft around November of 2013 and entered it in Pitch Wars that winter. In January, Marieke told me to start querying because she felt it was ready. So I did, and in February I got three offers of representation. Once I signed with Uwe Stender of TriadaUS Literary Agency, it was only a couple of weeks until my book sold to Wendy Loggia at Delacorte. All in all it was pretty fast. Which is good because I think I might have crumbled into a pile of once-Brooks-shaped pieces of anxiety if I had to wait much longer.
Laura Shovan: From initial idea to sale was just over five and a half years. Those years included feedback from critique groups and at writing conferences. Right before I signed with Stephen, I participated in Pitch Wars. My mentor, Joy McCulloch-Carranza, gave me a lot of guidance. Although my book received no agent attention during Pitch Wars, working with Joy was a crucial step. When I signed with Stephen, my book went right out on submission and sold quickly. My editor, Wendy Lamb, worked with me on revisions over four intense months. Wendy helped me develop the roles of some key characters and we cut two voices from the book. Copy edits happened about twelve months before publication. I’m so excited that Random House chose National Poetry Month for the book’s release.
Shari Schwarz: When I finally decided to write a book, I stared TREASURE AT LURE LAKE in December 2013 and was finished with the first draft in February 2014. I started querying in March 2014 (literally a year too early, but all the feedback I got from agents along the way, even though they were rejections, really helped me refine my book and my writing). I also had about 40 critique partners/beta readers generously weed through my book with me. Then, at the beginning of May 2015, I submitted to Cedar Fort after seeing an #MSWL on Twitter that looked like it might be a good fit for my story. I was offered a contract at the end of that month. In total 2 years and 4 months.
Melanie Conklin: I had to check my email for this one. Let’s see…I started writing COUNTING THYME on my mother’s couch in the fall of 2012, and finished the first draft by December. I signed with Pete the following February, 2013. We revised over the course of the next year, including one brief period on submission when I received some on point feedback from editor Cheryl Klein. Thyme ended up selling in March of 2014 to Stacey Barney at Putnam, who guided my revision from there on. The novel was finished last August, about eight months prior to publication. So that’s…2 years since the sale and 3.5 years since I started writing the story!
Isn’t it inspiring to get a behind the scenes peek at what these authors worked through to get published? I’m sure you want to give all of their books a read now. I sure do! Hop on over to Shari’s blog real quick to enter to win a copy of each of their debut novels. It’s easy!
Brooks Benjamin lives in Tennessee with his wife and their incredibly spoiled dog. His first novel, MY SEVENTH-GRADE LIFE IN TIGHTS will be released by Delacorte/Random House April 12th.
Laura Shovan works with children as a poet-in-the-schools and is currently visiting high schools as the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society’s Writer-in-Residence. She has written and edited three books of poetry, but THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY, is her first novel for children (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House).
Shari Schwarz lives in Colorado with her husband and their four boys. Shari loves to write adventure stories as much as she loves creating adventures in the mountains with her active family. TREASURE AT LURE LAKE is her debut, out April 12th by Cedar Fort Publishing.
Melanie Conklin is a writer, reader, and life-long lover of books and those who create them. She lives in South Orange, New Jersey with her husband and two small maniacs. COUNTING THYME is her debut middle grade novel, coming from G.P. Putnam’s Sons on April 12, 2016.