Today I'd like to welcome my friend and critique partner Heather Head to my blog! Heather and I met through some little coincidences that more or less amount to "she saw my writing webcomic and we became writer pals." I've beta-read her book and helped her with some aspects of her agent search, and now I'm thrilled to report she's secured representation! I decided to interview her with a hodgepodge of questions about her writing life and her newly agented status as a fun tidbit (and to show my readers how cool she is). And here we go!
JSD: Heather, you've just achieved something many author hopefuls dream of--you've signed with a literary agent! And not just any agent--the legendary Ethan Ellenberg! So first of all, congratulations!
I've got some questions for you that my readers who want to be in your shoes someday may want answered. (And I'm sure it will be entertaining for some other folks too!) So here we go--a host of probing personal questions about writing, querying, and signing.
1. First, the obligatory intro: give us one sentence about who you are, one sentence about what you write, and one sentence about the book that got you signed.
HH: I'm a writer, mom, and entrepreneur who loves good stories. I write many things, but the book that attracted my agent's attention is science fiction. It's set in a world where the dominant species is a sentient plant, and humans are treated as livestock.
JSD: It's a really cool book, you guys!
2. How did you come to the decision to pursue literary agency representation? Did you consider other potential publication paths that wouldn't require getting an agent? Tell us a little about what went into your process.
HH: When you've finally finished that first novel, it is SO tempting to go the self-publish route. You just want people to read it! Many authors have indeed been extremely successful by that route--Cory Doctorow comes to mind in the science fiction realm. So, yes, I did frequently think of doing that. However, I also became aware that if I self-published, I would have to run the whole business myself--promotion, marketing, building relationships with bookstores, editing, type setting, cover art, etc. etc. etc. I had helped a friend self-publish a little book of inspiration several years ago, and it was time-consuming, and we never really saw a lot of traction except among friends (and he already had a platform, so he was ahead of where I'd be starting). So, ultimately, my thinking was that I wanted everything that traditional publishing had to offer, and I decided I was willing to wait. That didn't stop me from holding self-publishing in my back pocket, just in case...
JSD: Yeah, that's sort of what I thought too--I didn't want to have to try to run a business as well as do the creative work of writing a book. I don't think I'd be that successful at it and I wanted a chance at everything mainstream authors get.
3. While you were looking for agents to query, what did you look for in the perfect agent for you? What made you decide for or against querying someone?
HH: The key criteria was reputation. I used Query Tracker to find agents, and then I'd check out their websites and their reputation to make sure they were legit. I tried to query across a range--from top agents to new agents, with the thinking that I didn't want to rule out top agents, but I might have better luck attracting the attention of a new agent. I realize this is counter to many people's advice to start at the top and work your way down. I was lucky that the one who picked me up was absolutely a top choice for me, one of the absolute best in the industry.
That having been said, when he first requested my manuscript, I had an intense moment of imposter syndrome. Even though I had vetted my options carefully, I was suddenly convinced I must have accidentally queried a schmagent--WHAT, someone wants my MANUSCRIPT? Hahahaha. I spent a lot of time reassuring myself (with a lot of help from you!) that he was as legit as his reputation. I can honestly say that I have now read every single word Ethan Ellenberg currently has available online as well as at least 80% of everything everyone has ever said about him in a public space.
It goes without saying that I only queried in my own genre (sci fi). Having said that, however, I originally queried as YA and got no results. Then as MG (I always felt my book was borderline between the two). When Ethan called, he told me that what I have is an adult book, even though the protagonists are children (and even though I'd written it for my own children--but then, they read a lot of adult literature too). Which just goes to show that sometimes you can screw up something as basic as market and still attract an agent.
JSD: Yeah, market can be tricky--and some agents who don't represent all categories will in fact reject you if you submit a book to them that doesn't fit in their categories. They might not even consider that perhaps this is an adult book in YA clothing, or something to that effect--but when they work with multiple categories, they certainly do sometimes do stuff like this. I had a similar situation with mine, but backwards--my agent agreed with me that it was an adult book, but publishers were saying "nope, child protagonist, YA." There are so many mixed messages out there, and they'll frequently present their opinions and interpretations as fact. You just have to be fortunate enough to hit the one that really understands your work.
4. Give us a little summary of what your roller coaster was like from the time you first queried Ethan Ellenberg's agency to the moment you signed the contract!
HH: Ethan Ellenberg is notoriously fast to respond, so it was a FAST roller coaster. I queried on September 7, he requested my manuscript, and a two-week exclusive, on the 12th. That was when the freak-out began, checking that he was legit (lol), checking that he was someone I wanted to work with (lol again), checking that I wasn't dreaming. Then the second-wave freak-out, deciding that there was no way he was going to offer, alternately with deciding exactly how I was going to spend my advance (lolololololololololol, seriously, LOL). I had to go for lots of walks (how I calm myself) and lots of meditation sessions (often while walking). The excitement felt exactly like high anxiety, with my consciousness hovering outside my skin and the inability to think of anything else--it was unpleasant, right when I thought I *ought* to be super happy. Such is the life of a writer.
I kept reminding myself that it was a compliment that someone of his caliber even wanted to look at my work. That, if he rejected it, that would be valuable information about where my work was weakest. That this was a good thing regardless of the outcome. Didn't stop me freaking out.
When he called on the 19th (12 days after I queried), I was on the phone with the utility company. I had spent 45 minutes waiting for a customer service rep, and they had just come on the line, finally, when the call waiting buzzed. I looked at the phone, and there was the name: Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency. My hands went sweaty. I got back on with the utility company. Being the smooth-under-pressure type that I am, I said, "Um. Uhhhh. Hi I uh I gotta um I'll bye! Ok."
Then I sat back, switched over to the new call, and said, "Hello. This is Heather." Because my heart was totally not racing a mile a minute (<--That's a lie).
We talked for about half an hour and I honestly didn't know at first if he was offering representation or asking for an R&R, because he wanted to talk in detail about my book. About fifteen minutes in, I finally just asked.
He was offering.
Meanwhile, I was IM'ing my husband. "I'm on the phone with Ethan Ellenberg. Omg." Then, "He's making an offer. OMG!!"
Once I got off the phone, I had yet another freak-out over the agency agreement, which he had his office manager send right away.
I always freak out over contracts, and I didn't want to screw it up, so I went back into a crazy research frenzy, reading everything I could about agency agreements and talking to all my friends in the business (like you!).
The final (so far) freak-out happened after I decided to accept the offer. I wanted to call the agency, because I felt like it was the sort of thing one ought to make a call regarding, rather than an email. I thought it would be such a wondrous call, but it was decidedly anti-climactic, and brief. Afterward I started second-guessing myself. WHY NO INSTA-PARTY-ON-THE-PHONE???????? WHY NO HOSTS OF ANGELS SINGING HALLELUJAH?????????? DID I SCREW IT UP?
My friend Melissa reminded me that I was not looking for a party-thrower, I wanted a business partner. "It's like a mullet," she said. "Business in the front. Party in the back. I'll be your party." Whew.
I have a business partner. Hallelujah!
JSD: That story about the mullet is hilarious. What an analogy!
Definitely true about the business partner thing though. The busier and more accomplished an agent is, the more likely they'll be less buddy-buddy, I guess. You've got us for your buddies. :)
5. I'd like to provide some encouragement to writers who are still in the trenches. Tell us about one of your darker times if you considered quitting or had doubts, and tell us what you did to come out on the other side.
HH: Remember when I called you up, even though we had never spoken in person? One of my favorite authors, Lev Grossman, had told me about an agent who had a good reputation among the authors he knows. After some research, I decided she was The One. Hehe. I carefully customized my query for her, mentioning that Lev had suggested I speak with her. She rejected me, with a form letter. It was only my fourth or fifth rejection, and I was devastated.
You were very kind to me.
When I encourage another writers, I have to repeat what so many others say: Don't give up. Accept that rejections are part of the journey. After a while, for what it's worth, you almost (ALMOST) don't notice them. And that makes the offer that much sweeter.
Right before I received my offer from Ethan, I took my son to a reading by Kate DiCamillo, one of our favorite MG authors. During the Q&A, she mentioned that Because of Winn Dixie (my favorite, her first) was rejected over 400 times before it was published. I was greatly cheered by that.
Now that I'm on the other side, I want to say that having an agent is wonderful. We've had a couple of meetings, and he's helping me decide what to focus on next, based on his extensive experience in what the market wants. Simultaneously, he's very respectful of my role as the artist, and reminds me that the decisions are all mine. I really appreciate having such a knowledgeable, businesslike partner to ground me. It's both inspiring and motivating--I'm so much more motivated to get that second book finished!
JSD: Yeah, I was actually thinking the other day about how we talked on the phone after that rejection. Interesting how sometimes we need another person's voice when we're down, but not as much when we're up--you told me your good news all by text messages! I think I might be the opposite--I'd rather send text-based messages if something bad happened, but if something good happened I want to tell them with my voice. Takes all kinds!
6. What advice was given to you by other authors that you found valuable? Did you receive any bad advice?
HH: I got SO much good advice. "Keep going" was the big one. I had a lot of help in crafting my query letter. I highly recommend getting lots of help with that. Beyond that, make your book as good as it can be. Read a lot. Write a lot. Start working on your next book. And seek out someone who can help you with the practical parts of the process.
Bad advice? Mostly from people who don't know the industry, telling me I'd be better off self-publishing (which might be true for some people, but it was bad advice for me because it assumed I hadn't already done my homework).
It is true that we all--I and all the many, many folks who helped me--thought we had a children's book on our hands. That's not bad advice so much as something we all missed. I wonder now if I wouldn't have gotten quicker attention to my work if I'd queried under adult. I'm incredibly grateful to Ethan for seeing what my book is and evaluating it on that basis rather than on what I'd queried it as.
JSD: I feel ya on the bad advice. Almost everything useless that's been said to me has been from someone who wasn't at all related to publishing or writing. Usually even if I disagree with or can't use someone's advice from inside the writing world, it seems like their perspective still does something for me. Though I guess I've also had people from inside occasionally tell me it's impossible to get a book deal now (haha) or laughed at me for pursuing mainstream publication because they preferred self-publishing and didn't respect that I didn't. There are some nasty folks on both sides of that fence. As for whether something is a "children's book," I think the real issue is that line is kind of blurring. The publishing industry does squeeze things into tight dichotomies sometimes, but we all know that kids read stuff that's "for" adults all the time, and adults frequently read kids' books. I'm sure Ethan's perspective will probably result in the most appropriate marketing for the book, but I'm also certain kids will read it!
7. Let's talk about rejection. Can you share any thoughts about receiving rejection letters? What about this: if you got a rejection from a partial or full manuscript, was that easier or harder to deal with than getting rejected from a query?
HH: Ethan was the first agent to request my full manuscript. I'd had one partial request. Perhaps because I was querying the wrong market? The rejection on the partial was indeed the hardest, not counting the one where I called you (which was hard only because I'd set up silly expectations and gotten attached to them, and because I wasn't yet accustomed to rejection). With a manuscript rejection, you feel like your actual work has been rejected, rather than just the query which, let's be honest, you're far less attached to than the book itself.
JSD: Yeah. Most people seem to feel the same--that if they looked at the work itself and didn't want it, the rejection feels so much more personal. But sometimes I run into people who are more insulted by "they didn't even give the writing a chance!" but are willing to shrug and say "fair enough" if they did read some of it and didn't dig it. I'm definitely more personally disappointed in someone reading and not liking my work than someone who just didn't feel interested enough to read it, though. And I'm quite familiar with that building up of hopes.
8. Can you tell us what Ethan likes about your book?
HH: In particular, he likes the way I portray communication between two alien consciousnesses, which he thinks is very interesting. He also seems to think that the characters are strong. I don't want to speak for him, but if I understand correctly, he thinks I have an original idea well executed, and that it will be highly sellable. In talking about one of my new ideas, he mentioned that it would be a hard task, but that I seemed to like setting hard tasks for myself. He didn't actually say that he likes that about me, but I like it about me, and I'm glad he sees that in me.
JSD: Yeah, I liked that aspect of the story too. I appreciate that it's fully fleshed out--it's not just "what if sentient plants took over Earth?" but HOW that actually manifests and why they think it's fine to enslave and consume humans. The resulting gray morality is nice too. Too often books about alien invasions paint the invaders as "bad guys" entirely, while yours has a host of different approaches to the two species' relationships. I'm glad your agent appreciates what you can do!
9. What did you do to celebrate getting an agency contract?
HH: I told everyone I could think of privately, went to dinner with my family, and privately (and not-so-privately), internally (and externally), freaked out--I've gotten very good at freaking out. Lots of practice.
JSD: 10. Share some thoughts with us on the next big adventure: SUBMISSION! What are you most nervous about? What are you most excited about?
HH: I'm not even ready to think about it yet. Way too nerve-wracking. One freak-out at a time, please!!!!
JSD: Wait, but you've already thought of how to spend your advance! Hahaha. . . .
Thanks for sharing your thoughts and advice with us, Heather! I hope it's not long before I can buy your book!
HH: Thank you!
You can find Heather online at all these fine places:
Thanks for reading, everyone!