Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Howdy from Farrah Penn: The Writer Who Made All The Mistakes So You Don’t Have To

Hey readers! I wanted to take a minute and thank everyone from Secret Life for allowing me to become a contributor on this blog. I’ve always enjoyed the fact that Secret Life gives gives readers a more personal insight into writing and publishing. I definitely wish this was around when I was first getting started in the writing community, and you’re about to find out why.

I want this kick off post to talk about the awkward things we hope we don’t have to face in publishing: the mistakes.

When I graduated from my university with my bachelor’s, and I had no idea what I really wanted to do. A friend of mine told me we should start a book blog and after a few months, I became extremely passionate about reading and writing again. (Let’s be honest: who really has time for that in college? And if you do, may I borrow your superpowers sometime?)

I finished my “NA” (I hate putting labels on things, but that’s what the large part of publishing would describe it as) novel that was largely inspired by Megan McCafferty’s Jessing Darling books. When it was done, I was ready to rock and roll with querying.

Mistake #1: Your Second Pair of Eyes (AKA Critique Partners)

I queried this book for the first time in 2009 (I was still in college at that time but I wasn’t really serious about writing or querying) without having anyone read it other than myself. It wasn’t edited, not really. Needless to say, that round of querying got me nowhere.

Here’s what I would have done and for most of you it will seem obvious: I would have sought out beta readers and critique partners. I would have made changes based on similar advice, put the MS away for a while, and then cleaned it up with a fresh pair of eyes. I would have asked for help because, trust me, you don’t want to go through publishing alone.

Mistake #2: Querying

When the first round of querying this particular book failed, I sought out beta readers (who were also my friends) and pretty much rewrote the entire thing after I’d graduated (aka when I had way more free time). During that time, I began to use Twitter more and discovered there was a writing community out there. I didn’t exactly do my research on the second round of querying, but I should have.

Here’s some mistakes I made: Not formatting the query according to guidelines, attaching more pages than asked for, replying to rejection queries, querying multiple agents within the same agency, so on and so forth.

Ugh. Cringe, right? Now I see agents blog and tweet about how much that bothers them and want to smack myself. Follow directions, y’all. It’s not that hard (although apparently it was for me). Also, not following guidelines will sometimes result in your query heading straight into the trash box, ruining any opportunity you’d have with that agent.

Another mistake with querying: My query wasn’t that good. If I could navigate into my old hotmail account and find it, I would find it so I could tear it apart for you. (I deleted that email account, so I have no idea where a saved copy would be, if I even have it). It didn’t have a hook, it was too cliche, and my voice didn’t stand out. (I’m self-critiquing it because I know better now) Again, this is where critique partners and beta readers are great! It always helps to have a second pair of eyes on things, even something as simple as your query letter.

Mistake #3: The Call

This post is already getting long, so if you want to read more about my novel that got me my agent, you can read this post from my blog. For now I’ll just say that I became more active with blogging, twitter, and the writing community, pushed aside that “NA” novel, and wrote a YA dystopian. This was around the beginning of 2011.

I had that feeling where I was like, “hey, I got this.” I read so many blogs that gave querying advice. I wrote an actual YA query with a hook. I painstakingly followed every agent’s querying guidelines down to the smallest details. I was determined to get this right.

Bright side: I apparently did do something right because I gathered a few requests on my first round. Fast forward through doing revisions for person-of-interest, agent Suzie Townsend, and she requested to call me.

Here’s where mistake #3 comes in. I was so well-versed in querying information that I totally forgot to research what to expect during a call. I literally had no idea what we were going to talk about other than that Suzie wanted to talk about my novel.

Ugh. Cringe again. I was so nervous and excited to speak with her. Luckily Suzie has a great phone personality because she was confident and was able to lead our conversation.

But when she asked if I had questions? Yeah that would have been the time to be prepared. Instead I just asked her questions about my novel that she already answered via email. Your book is important, but I should have been asking her about the submission process, her personal revision process, how the agency works together (or individually), time frames, business questions, etc. etc. etc.

(Sidenote: I’m going to link Andrea’s post here if you happen to be reading this and ARE curious about what questions to ask during the call. She does a great job at explaining.)

Lucky for me, Suzie spun the conversation to explain some of those things to me since I was an idiot and wasn’t asking about the important stuff. Then I believe she offered, which was absolutely awesome.

This is turning into a really long post, so I’ll try and wrap it up. These are 100% my mistakes that I own up to throughout my publishing process. If I could have done it differently, I would have researched more. THAT’S really one of the big reasons why I wanted to join Secret Life. I wanted other writers to know that it’s not the end of the world if you make mistakes and not only that, but to also learn from the ones I made.

Before I sign off, I want to leave you with some really useful blogs that I feel would be helpful for publishing research:

  • Almost everyone knows this one but in case you don’t, Agent Query is a great tool for those just getting started querying. There are informative articles about query letters as well as agent information.
  • Dahlia Alder, Writing Guru and Extraordinar, has an entire section of her website dedicated to helping querying and agented writers. It’s awesome. You can read more about it here.
  • This may seem like I’m plugging my agency, but in all honesty I feel like it’s super useful. New Leaf Literary’s tumblr has an ask box where you can ask questions and receive professional answers from established agents. Don’t be afraid of asking dumb questions (there is no such thing!) but if you ARE worried, you can ask anonymously.

Anyway, I hoped this helped you! I’m looking forward to writing more posts in the future. If you have any specific topic ideas you’d like me to cover, please let me know in the comments!

Farrah Penn enjoys staying up way too late and making up for it in large quantities of coffee. On top of her love for reading books with memorable characters, she also enjoys internet memes, yoga, and her adorably bratty dog. When she’s not rushing to complete marketing projects at work, she’s writing and daydreaming about traveling the world. Farrah writes YA and is represented by Suzie Townsend of New Leaf Literary.

You can also find her on Twitter @:
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2 secret replies:

  1. It's not too long. :)
    Thanks for the links!

    I made a lot of mistakes, too. I sent out queries without even looking over them myself. And a synopsis, too, but thankfully that was just the one. I did at least always get people's names right, though I've sent out quite a few with the wrong title in the subject line. And my favorite mistake was last time when I had a personalized query that I copied and pasted into a submission form and forgot to depersonalize it. I'm sure I looked real professional. Never send a query out when you're tired, right? And it would have helped a lot if I had only copied the story summary to begin with. Live and learn. Lol!

  2. Love this post, and not just because of the shoutout, but thank you for that ;) It's so hard but important to remember that mistakes aren't the end of the world, and that as long as you're not a jerk, there's pretty much nothing you can't overcome as far as publishing's concerned!