Today’s interview is awesome! Why? Because it’s one of our own—the thing all of us writers are striving to be and work hard to reach. Billy Coffey landed his literary agent and not just ANY agent—we’re talking about Rachelle Gardner from Word Serve Literary.
1. Let’s start off with your query, what were you pitching to agents? (What do you write?) Secondly, did you have a writing platform, if so what did that include?
I was grudgingly pitching a spiritual memoir. “Grudgingly” because I didn’t consider myself a memoirist in the least. In my head, that word conjured images of old men in tweed sport jackets who lounged in leather chairs and spoke. In. Short. Sentences. That wasn’t me. But I had everything a little backwards. Instead of picking a genre and writing a book, I wrote the book and then needed a genre. Spiritual memoir was closest.
My writing platform wasn’t as strong as some, but strong enough not to dissuade Rachelle. My blog had been steadily building readers, and I also write columns for a local newspaper, a regional magazine, and for Churchmouse Publications, an online syndicate service.
2. Your credentials look pretty good to me, as for the genre I think many writers can agree with that. Writing a book then finding a genre, some people find it close to something they wouldn’t ‘normally’ plan to write. With every interview I do I love to tie in the genres and their own definitions so how would you define your genre?
The spiritual memoir is based on the theory that we are not only outwardly linked by history we’re linked by it inwardly as well. What happens to one in the depths of his or her soul in some aspects happens to us all. So even though the story is unique to the storyteller, it also contains elements common to every reader. It’s the narrative of one person’s walk of faith that can cover a lifetime, a year, or, in my case, a single day.
3. A single day? That must have been one heck of a day to compose a high word count novel. What inspired you to write this book? Is there more come?
One horrible, wonderful day. I woke up to a snowstorm outside and news that I may be laid off from my job because of the economy. I went to bed with the stars shining and the knowledge that I had a very good life. I didn’t just want to write Snow Day. I had to.
My next book is in its final couple of drafts, and I have a pile of notes on my desk for a third.
4. Whenever we had a snowstorm I went to bed with worries, knowing my little car would have to trudge through to work. Just out of curiosity, how has your first draft of your novel changed to its final stage for querying (before editors get to it)?
Actually, not much. I’ve moved a few chapters around and added an epilogue, but that’s about it. My first manuscript went through twelve drafts and ended up completely different than what I had started with, but Snow Day wrote itself. The hardest thing was to simply get out of my own way and let it happen. I’m expecting that to be the exception rather than the rule, though. More often than not, I really don’t know what I’m trying to say until the third draft or so.
5. That’s interesting, because usually with my WIP’s I know what I’m trying to say, but it takes me twelve drafts so others understand it. Did you use any helpful sites such as Query Tracker, Writer’s Digest, or Agent Query to research agents or were sticking to the books like Literary Marketplace of updated agents?
I used them all, plus a few more! Query Tracker and Agent Query are great, but you have to be careful because not all of their listings are up to date. You can’t find a better source for writing and publishing tips than Writer’s Digest. I’ll add to that list the Preditors and Editors website, which was invaluable. Sadly, there are a lot of agents and publishers out there who are much less than what they appear. It’s easy to get sweet-talked into signing with someone who wants to feed off your dreams rather than believe in them.
I still have copies of Writer’s Guides from 2000 to 2008 on my bookshelves, all dog-eared and underlined. The same goes for the Sally Stuart’s Christian Writer’s Market Guides.
It’s never been easier to find avenues to reach agents and editors, and in that regard I don’t think there’s such a thing as too much information. The trick is knowing how to process it all and use it to your advantage.
6. I have to agree with you on that, it’s a big decision to sign with someone and I’ve read stories on writers who signed with someone they thought was perfect and now they’re seeking representation elsewhere. It’s always nice to see how it ranges for people, so may I ask how many rejections/partials/fulls you’ve received before getting the call?
I think I stopped keeping count after the first twenty-five rejections or so. I’ve heard of writers who used their rejection letters as fodder for their determination. Stephen King taped his to a dartboard, and I read once of a very famous author who used his as toilet paper. I’ve heard that from a business standpoint it’s always good to keep them on file. I tried that, but it really started to bug me when that file began to get thicker and thicker. In the end, I resorted to just marking the agent’s name off a list I kept in my notebook.
All in all, I had over forty rejections. Half of those came from my query, half of that from partials, and half of that from fulls. Yes, it was awful. More awful than I can say. And yes, I wanted to give up. But I’m a stubborn person, and that stubbornness paid off in the end.
7. A dartboard—that could be fun! Speaking of fun, it’s very funny because I actually found you on twitter (see social networking pays off) and I also follow Rachelle and when I saw her post about “making the call” I couldn’t believe she was picking someone up. Did you see that post? Were you prepared for the phone call or were caught off guard?
I did see that post, but only after the fact. Rachelle had contacted me a few days prior to set up a phone call, and contacted me again the day of to say not to worry because this was The Call. I didn’t dare get my hopes up after those forty plus rejections, but it did get me pretty excited.
She offered representation right away, which allowed me to inhale and continue the conversation. We talked about my book, how she wanted to market it, and what her plans were. Rachelle’s such a nice lady, and that put me right at ease.
But there was so much information going back and forth and my head was swimming so much that I forgot to ask her one thing: could I tell everyone the good news, or should I wait until after I had signed the contract?
I was planting some flowers for my wife a little while later when my cell phone started going crazy. In the span of about five minutes, I had over sixty new followers on Twitter. I went back later and saw Rachelle’s tweet. She’d answered my question for me.
And social networking? YES. I refused to believe I had to partake in blogs and Twitter and Facebook in order to get an agent, but I finally gave in out of desperation. That’s when things began to turn around for me. If you’re a writer, especially a beginning one, such things are mandatory.
8. Okay there you have it, for all of you I always see debating on keeping up with blogs and tweets—keep them going! I am assuming you and Rachelle connected with a similar vision of your book, if that connection wasn’t there would you have passed representation with her?
We’re exactly on the same page as far as the vision for Snow Day, and that’s made things so much easier. I like to think that I would have passed representation if that wasn’t the case. That would be the right thing to do. But the great thing about her is that she is up front about her desire for my input. I feel like I’m not working for her, not even that she’s working for me, but that we’re working together. I think that’s not only very important for a writer, but for a good agent as well. We talked enough before The Call that if that common vision wasn’t there, she would have likely recommended another agent rather than offered representation.
9. Working together with someone is always better than having it one sided and it’s wonderful that you found an agent who is behind you and your work. Okay, so you have an agent. What’s happening to your book right now?
Rachelle took my proposal to ICRS (International Christian Retail Show) and has sent it to the editors there who showed interest. She’s also working on the final edits for my manuscript, which she’ll send and I’ll go through to have ready if and when a publisher requests a full. The patience you have to exercise in getting an agent is repeated after you’ve signed with one. Some editors will get back with Rachelle in a matter of weeks. Others will take months. It’s a lot of hurry up and wait.
10. The speed of replies and feedback is one of the hardest parts sometimes. Instead of calling this the “Publishing Industry” they should refer it as the “Wait in Agony Industry”. What advice would you give to new writers searching for their own agents? Please don’t say the business is subjective, I do believe we’re all aware of that by now. =D
It’s easy to just write a generic query letter and carpet bomb the entire literary world with it, but you’re really better off whittling down the list of agents you have and concentrating on those who are most likely to show interest. Tailor your query according to them. Have you met them at a conference? Is your book comparable to that of a client? Do you enjoy their blog? Why is that agent the best fit for you?
Agents get hundreds of queries a month. Make yours stand out. Be personable and professional. Don’t go for gimmicks. Make your query your absolute best writing. And whatever you do, follow their guidelines to the letter. This is not the time to break rules.
And maybe most of all, make sure your book is as polished as it can be before you start querying. Have it torn apart by critique groups. Tear it apart yourself. If you can afford it, find a good freelance editor. Make sure it’s as good as it can possibly be, and an agent will have no choice but to take a closer look. The agents you’re querying are not members of a national cabal whose sole purpose is to keep you from getting published. It’s easy to start thinking they’re the enemy. They’re not. But if your book isn’t ready, they’ll make it feel that way.
11. A lot of my readers participate in Critique Groups and ask for Beta Readers that may be asked for just feedback or edits also so it’s nice to know that’s recognized as the right direction. What reflection(s) do you hope your novel will leave people when we see it polished and published in the store?
That the worst times of our lives can also be the best, that for every drop of darkness in our days there is a gallon of light, and that when we lose what means much, we often find what means more.
12. That’s a great answer, really great in fact I’m a little speechless on how to tie in the next question. You have a close friend, Kat, who is helping you out with more business like subjects so you can focus on your writing, how can I get my friends to do that when the time comes? I’m kidding, but it does convey the fact this is someone you truly trust and obviously respects with what you’re trying to do, have you two been life-long friends?
I’ve actually only known Kat since April. She happened upon my blog one day and left a smart aleck comment to my post. I always try to repay the kindness of someone commenting on a post by doing the same, so I followed her back to her blog (my comment? Not smart alek-y).
She emailed a week or so later wanting to know if I’d be interested in guest posting for her once a week. She’s a gifted painter and had gotten too busy to post something every day. I said sure.
After a few posts, she emailed again wanting to know if she could take a look at my manuscript. She read it, loved it, and then offered to help me in any way she could. I couldn’t begin to say how important she’s been. I absolutely trust and respect her, and her opinion is invaluable. She’s the first person who sees anything I write.
Writing is such a lonely task, and it’s necessary to have people to keep your writing honest and up to your abilities. And this is another reason to have a blog. If you post something on a regular basis that’s good quality then people will find you. Those people will be more than willing to help you get to your dreams.
13. That story makes me so happy! I have a writing buddy who is ‘My Kat’ who I also met online. It’s crazy how many important people you can meet online and think I’ve never met this person in my life and yet it feels like I’ve known them for ages. I adore all of my writing friends. Lastly, I always ask a random question. If you could tell everyone in the world something, and I mean everyone, what would tell them?
That’s not just the first rule for a writer, it’s the first rule for everyone. We miss so much good in life because we refuse to slow down and see it. There’s magic out there. Wonder and beauty and good. The world is full of tragedy, but there’s nothing as tragic as walking through our days carrying more burdens than hopes.
If you would like to know more about Billey here are some personal links:
His blog: http://www.billycoffey.blogspot.com
That wraps up this interview perfectly. I agree with all my heart, there’s magic out there, and I fell in love instantly with that line. I’d like to thank Billey and Kat for working with me for this interview, especially since Billey has been busy with his writing and Kat can match emailing speeds with me (that’s way impressive). I will be keeping in touch so we will all know when your book “Snow Day” is released and then of course we can rush in to get a copy. Sell big Rachelle!