Friday, January 29, 2010

Kelli Stanley: From Small Press to Big Success

Interview by Heather Moore

Welcome, Kelli, to our writing blog. We’re excited to hear about your writing journey and how you went from getting your first mystery novel, Nox Dormienda: A Long Night for Sleeping, published with a smaller press to landing a contract with a major publisher for City of Dragons.

Heather: First of all, congratulations on your starred reviews from Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Booklist for City of Dragons! Pretty amazing to say the least. But first things first . . . I recently read your award-winning mystery novel, Nox Dormienda (an Arcturus mystery) and really enjoyed the classic Roman noir setting. Tell us about the beginnings of your publishing career with this first book.

Kelli: Heather, thank you so much for having me over! It’s an honor to be here at Writing on the Wall. And thank you very much for the kind words! I wrote NOX DORMIENDA just a few years ago when I was in graduate school, earning a Master’s degree in Classics. It was the first novel I ever tried to write, but I’d written “stuff” my whole life, from poetry to screenplays. I wanted to do something creative with my degree—and my life. My choices were really to either go forward in academia, pursuing a Ph.D., or try something new. So inspired by the success of writers like Stephen Saylor and Lindsay Davis, I took the plunge and wrote NOX, which combines my love of noir and hardboiled fiction and film with the history and culture I’d spent so much time studying.

Contrary to expectations, I found an agent immediately—the first agent I queried, in fact. However, she moved out of the country and I was left—in my graduating semester—with very few prospects. That was a scary time, let me tell you. And to compound the stress, I was operating in a vacuum of ignorance. I knew no one in the community, I wasn’t a member of any organization—no Sisters in Crime, no Mystery Writers of America. I’m kind of mule-headed (some in my family might say VERY mule-headed, lol!), and I just didn’t feel comfortable investing any money in myself if all this publishing stuff was a pipe dream. So I wasn’t sure what to do. My former agent suggested I submit the manuscript to Five Star, a small, library press—they get their books reviews and it seemed like a good place to start. I thought to myself, “Just get a toe in the doorway.”

So I sent the book to Five Star and I was accepted. And it was at that point that I started to actually believe in myself, and promptly tried to make up for all the lost time and join organizations and learn as much about the industry as possible. After this start, you can imagine my surprise and gratitude at NOX winning the Bruce Alexander and becoming a Macavity finalist last year.
Heather: That must have been a thrill to have NOX in such a prestigious way. You have written a sequel for Nox Dormienda, but that’s not the next book coming out. City of Dragons was picked up by Thomas Dunne/Minotaur and will be out February 2, 2010. How did you find your agent for this book and how long did it take to secure a publishing contract?

Kelli: There are a lot of characters and plots roaming around in my head, and I never planned to just focus on Rome—too limiting. My true love is mid-century America, particularly the 30s through the end of World War II. So I planned to write a novel with a female private detective, and I was going to set it in 1939, at the San Francisco World’s Fair—the Golden Gate International Exposition.

Now, once I realized that it would be very, very difficult—almost impossible—to get my first series picked up by a major publisher, I knew that writing another series would provide me a fresh chance. Fortunately, I’d written CURSED, the sequel to NOX, in just a few months—before I submitted NOX and while I was waiting to figure out what to do with my life.

So I wrote CITY OF DRAGONS. The book became darker, set in 1940, and while the Fair plays a role—and is actually the setting for a Miranda Corbie short story that’s coming in the FIRST THRILLS anthology in June—Chinatown is the backdrop.

In the meantime, I was without an agent, and knew I’d have to go through the tortuous process of finding one. A friend recommended her agency, I sent them my work, and found the absolutely best agent in the world—Kimberley Cameron, of Kimberley Cameron and Associates. I finished CITY OF DRAGONS a few months after NOX was published, and Kimberley put it on the market in the second week of January, 2009. The market fell out and I was petrified it wouldn’t sell. But three weeks later we had a deal with Thomas Dunne/Minotaur, and believe me—I couldn’t be happier. I adore my editor and my publishing team!
Heather: I’ve heard Kimberly Cameron is an excellent agent. Congratulations. I think every writer was holding her breath when the market went south. But you are one of the survivors. The cover for CITY OF DRAGONS is stunning, so kudos to your publisher's design department. What are some of the key things or mottos that you believe have attributed to your success as an author?

Kelli: My family, number one. They’ve believed in me from the beginning, and help prop me up through all the self doubt. And the generosity of this community—the crime fiction community—is unbelievable. I have been helped and supported by so many people … and one of my goals is to be able to give back in any way I can.

I also think it helps that my expectations are fairly realistic—I want to write full-time. That’s it! And I recognize that publishing is a business—that writing is a business, and that authors really need to look at themselves that way.

And, of course, perseverance counts the most. You just can’t give up, though there have been times that I’ve thought I should.

Heather: Perseverance is even more important than ever. The typical writing process can take years from writing, to submitting, to a book release. I think it’s important for novice writers to understand that the success we see splashed in the newspapers and magazines has been a long time in building up. What are your writing habits—and how long does it take you from idea to completion of a novel?

Kelli: I hold a day job, so writing has to be worked in around everything else. And though I use a loose outline, the plot also develops as I write—characters come in I don’t expect, etc. I prepare a certain amount of research ahead of time, too, but also research specifics as they come up. So all in all, I’m usually a fairly fast writer, but how long it takes to get to the finished product depends, like everything else, on other demands: day job, personal and family life … and certainly, all the editing, marketing, etc. that goes into launching a new book.

Heather: Like the rest of us, you are juggling many things. Gratefully, the internet has given authors instant access to self-promotion. How important is internet presence (websites, blogging, social sites) to your marketing?

Kelli: Enormously important. The internet is where most people receive their news, their impressions of what might interest them. The trick is to figure out what—of the million on-line opportunities out there—might work. I wish I had the answer! Social networking is fun—and when you spend a lot of time staring at a page, it’s great to take a break and connect with friends and readers. But—the downside—it can be an enormous time drain. So you have to constantly remind yourself, again, that you’re a business, and you don’t have time to harvest your crops in Farmville.

Heather: LOL. The other day I deleted about 30 requests for Farmville and finally blocked it. Based on your experience, would you advise an unpublished writer to submit first to small publishers or to find an agent?

Kelli: Unpublished writers, in my opinion, should ALWAYS seek an agent first. Even with a small press, agents will recognize a one-sided contract when they see it. If I’d had an agent when I signed my contract for NOX, we could have bargained for a much better deal in terms of length of ownership of rights, etc. All kinds of things you don’t think about—or at least I didn’t, because I didn’t know any better. An agent will protect you from getting taken advantage of because you want something—to be published—very, very badly. That’s their job, and they can and should be a writer’s best friend.

That said, it takes time and perseverance to find the right agent for you. Think of it like a marriage—you wouldn’t fly to Las Vegas together on the first query letter, so take the time to research the agents you submit your work to, take time to ask them questions. Research their reputations, email their clients. It’s a personal relationship as well as a business one, and it needs to click.

Heather: Research is so important. I had an agent once send me a contract and only after the fact did I do the research. Every author I contacted told me NOT to go with that agent. It would have saved me a lot of time and heartache if I’d done the research in advance. What additional advice would you give to those dreaming of becoming published writers?

Kelli: Take a piece of paper and paste this to your computer: Butt in Seat. That sums up what you have to do … sit there and focus and finish the book. Don’t send anything to anyone that is unfinished. Finish it, have done with it, make sure you’re happy with it, but don’t endlessly tweak it, either. Then start the query process.

And don’t repeat the mistake I made. Join Sisters in Crime, join International Thriller Writers and Mystery Writers of America! You’ll learn so much, and all of it will help. You’ll meet writers who might blurb your book when you get your contract, you’ll meet agents, you’ll learn about the industry. If you’re serious about being published, you have to be serious about the business, and these organizations will help.

Heather: Excellent advice. Tell us about the book(s) you are working on now.

Kelli: Right now, I’m working on the sequel to CITY OF DRAGONS—the working title is COUNTRY OF SPIDERS, but that may change. I’ve got a Miranda Corbie short story called “Children’s Day” coming out—it’s a prequel to CITY OF DRAGONS—in FIRST THRILLS: HIGH OCTANE STORIES FROM THE HOTTEST THRILLER WRITERS, the next ITW anthology. It’s full of stories by stellar writers and bestsellers like Michael Palmer and Jeffery Deaver next to stories by “up-and-comers”, and it’s edited by Lee Child—so you can imagine how thrilled I am to be there! The book comes out June 22 from Tor/Forge.

And the impossible did happen! My editor bought the sequel to NOX, so both series are now with Minotaur. CURSED should be out maybe at the end of this year, maybe early next year—I’m not sure yet. Meanwhile, I’ve got my hands full with the second Miranda book and launching CITY OF DRAGONS!

Heather: Congrats, Kelli, and thanks so much for taking time out of your busy promotion schedule! You can read Chapter 1 of CITY OF DRAGONS here. Also, visit Kelli Stanley's website for upcoming events, reviews, book trailers, interviews, and more.
Kelli: Thanks a million, Heather—it’s been absolutely wonderful to be here, and good luck to all your Writing on the Wall readers for success with their projects!

Monday, January 25, 2010

100 Followers, Conferences & Other Updates

Today we officially have 100 followers! Welcome to Writing on the Wall if you are new. As a quick introduction, we are a group of freelance editors who work under the umbrella of Precision Editing Group, LLC. What sets us apart from other editors? We're all published authors, so we know the writing journey inside and out. We also believe in mentoring, thus the beginning of this blog.

We don't have a Monday Mania submission today, so here are some updates.

We've started posting a few Writers Conferences on the sidebar. Obviously there are hundreds of conferences each year and we can't post them all. An excellent source is Writer's Digest. Also you can google writing chapters in your area.

Each year there is a free fantasy/sci fi writers conference in Provo, Utah, called LTUE (Life, the Universe and Everything). PEG editor Julie Wright, will be teaching a couple of workshops, as well as Lisa Mangum, editor for Shadow Mountain (which has put out NY Times Bestselling Authors), and Brandon Sanderson (NY Times Bestseller). There is an impressive line up this year. Conference dates: Feb 11-13, 2010. Check it out here.

Congrats to Josi Kilpack (PEG Editor), her newest book Devil's Food Cake comes out any day. We're happy to announce book releases for our blog followers. Just let us know!

Coming this Friday: An interview with award-winning writer, Kelli Stanley, author of the upcoming City of Dragons. She'll share her writing and publication journey of how she went from publishing her first book with a small press to landing a publishing contract with a major publisher.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Top Ten Query Letter Mistakes

By Julie Wright

I went to lunch with one of my favorite authors last week, J. Scott Savage. Going to lunch with him is like being put on a battery charger. I always leave him feeling better about myself and the things I want to accomplish in my life. He made a comment that bears repeating:

If you succeed at everything you do, you probably aren't trying challenging enough things.

I concede the point, Mr. Savage. And this should feel like good news to those of us who are consistently tackling mountains. At least we know we aren't complacent.

Writer's Digest did a top ten list on query letter mistakes. I read through the list and got a few chuckles from it, wiped my brow in relief that I never have made any of those mistakes, and then wondered if they got the list right. While they are dead on with some of them, there were other mistakes that weren't mentioned that certainly deserve mentioning. So I made my own list. I borrowed a couple from theirs which I will note with a asterisk so you know where I blatantly plagiarized.

1. Beauty is only skin deep: you wrote your query but have a coffee cup stain on the paper, or you printed it out on paper that smells like day old soup. Or if you sent an e-query, your formatting gets lost on the way to the agent's computer and now looks like a jumbled mess, or your signature line has a cheesy picture of your cat in it. Remember the importance of first impressions. The moment they look at your query, you want their first impression to be good. You don't want them remembering you as the author whose query smells like soup.

2. Thy humble servant: I know it seems like it a good idea to confess your lack of experience but agents and editors don't want to know that you have no idea what you're doing even if you do think humility might win you brownie points. If you have no publishing credits, fine, but don't write things like, "This is my first book ever and though I don't have any publishing credits, I'm really hoping you'll give me a chance." Be confident. You wrote a book! You should feel accomplished.

3. Cut the cheese: I'm not talking about passing gas here, I'm talking about literally cutting the cheesy stuff out of your query letters. Don't spray your pink query letter paper with perfume. Refrain from cutesy statements, but let your personality shine. I know that seems contrary, but it is a balancing act and can be done successfully if you are careful not to put in too much information. Don't be chummy, don't be cutesy, don't be cheesy.

4. Say it isn't so: If you have a friend who's an author who might endorse your book, but who hasn't actually agreed to endorse your book, don't mention it in your query letter. If you are querying an agent and mention that an editor from some big publishing house has expressed an interest in the manuscript, you had better be telling the truth. The publishing industry is small and you'd be surprised at how everyone seems to know everyone else. Don't fib to make yourself look better.

5. Flattery will get you everywhere: It seems like a great idea to flatter, butter up, or schmooze an agent or editor, but there is a wrong and right way to go about connecting with the person you're writing to. Know their real names and their real genders. Don't assume an agent named Chris is a guy. Chris could be short for Christine. If you want to impress them, then prove you did your homework by knowing their name, their client list, the things they are specifically looking for right now. That is far more flattering than saying, "I think you are totally awesome and know we will be the very best of friends!" Editors and agents aren't looking for a BFF. They are looking for writers.

6. You aren't the only fish in the sea: Do not tell an agent that you have also queried twenty other agents. Don't send them snarky replies if they send you a rejection. Chances are good they know the twenty other agents and they will all go to lunch and swap horror stories. Be professional and respectful. These are real people with real memories--real long memories.

7. This is my first novel and it's 150,000 words: I know you feel pretty cool having written that much. And it IS cool that you wrote that much, but for a first time author, no publisher wants to commit resources to print that many words. Most adult commercial fiction is between 75,000 and 100,000, and YA is between 60,000 and 80,000words. Try hard to edit your manuscript down to fit into those parameters. It stinks to edit out words that you feel are brilliant, but far better to edit out a few so the rest can actually be read.

8. Typos: check, recheck, and check again. do not send off a query letter with a typo in it. It's only a page. It's imperative that this one page is completely clean. I know manuscripts will inevitably have a few typos, but it is your job to make the editor's job easier. Don't give them reasons to say no. *

9. This is Oprah's next favorite!: Don't tell the agent/editor that you are the next Twilight, Harry Potter, Oprah pick, or that you will definitely sell a million books because you are so brilliant. I said earlier to be confident, but that doesn't mean be cocky.

10. Boring: If you query letter is boring and reads like a third grade book report, then what is the agent/editor supposed to expect from your actual manuscript? Don't have one long paragraph for your story synopsis in the query letter, but break it up into three to four line paragraphs. That helps make it less daunting visually. And remember to keep it interesting. Think of what kind of book jacket blurb would attract you and compel you to make a book purchase. You want your query letter to hold that same sort of excitement.

Friday, January 1, 2010

2010: Looking Forward

by Heather Moore

I literally gained ten pounds writing my most recent book. It wasn’t really that I ate more chocolate (although that could be true), or ate more fast food to cut back on shopping or cooking time (although that might be true as well), but as I became so caught up in finishing the project, it seemed that every spare moment was be used in writing, not exercising.

This week, I managed to go running (30% running/ 70% walking) three times. This is a record since probably, oh, August. Because it’s freezing in my city, I dragged my 12 year old with me to the local rec center to run the track. Monday was quiet there, Tuesday was busier, and by Thursday it was packed.

As we maneuvered ourselves in and out of other eager runners, I told my daughter, “It will stay packed like this through January, then by the first week of February only a few will remain.”

Ah, the New Year’s Resolutions, and the initial burst of energy and determination that fades almost as quickly as it starts. I have seen this lately with many writer friends. Queries have been sent out in a flurry in November and December, many times unpolished. Rejections have already filtered in, and discouragement has set in. One of my friends, after four rejections in just a few weeks, completely gave up.

It’s hard to stay motivated and positive as we write and submit. We might spend a weekend researching agents and by Monday morning we have submitted to six or eight of them. But in a recent WD article, agent Ann Rittenberg says she receives 3,000 queries per year, and 75% are for novels. Of that, 90% are for first novels, meaning 2,000 queries are for first novels. Ann says that “80 percent of those query letters about first novels never should have been sent” (“Submitting Your Novel: Basics of a Solid 3-Paragraph Query,” Writer’s Digest, January 2010, 62). Ann also says that many of those queries are for types of books that she doesn’t represent, or it’s obvious that the writers “were not ready to be published and the books were not ready to be agented.” (ibid)

But what if we are ready? We’ve finished the book, gone through revisions with trusted editors, written a powerful query, and we are still receiving rejections? Do we stop going to the track? Stop running altogether?

Looking forward to 2010, my advice is:
1. Use rejections to improve your work. Slow down a little and put in the right effort to submit to the right agent. Researching agents and/or publishers will be worth your time.
2. Understand that the submitting process is a waiting game, which means that you need to have more than just one writing goal.
3. Stay open to ideas and options. There are many genres and avenues you can get published through.
4. Don’t just set "be all, end all" writing goals, but set back-up goals when you reach that left turn.
5. As we know, writing is not for the faint-hearted. It’s wonderful to create, but there will come a point when you feel as if you are slugging through the muddy marshes of revising.

James Michener said, “Being goal-oriented instead of self-oriented is crucial. I know many people who want to be writers. But let me tell you, they really don’t want to be writers. They want to have been writers. They wish they had a book in print. They don’t want to go through the work of getting the damn book out. There is a huge difference.” (as quoted in WD, Jan 2010, 46)

Will you still be “running” in February? I hope so!