Diane Patterson recently signed with agent Andrea Somberg of Harvey Klinger, Inc.. Congratulations Diane, and thank you for agreeing to our little interview.
Query Tracker: How long have you been writing?
Diane Patterson: I once found a short story I'd sent to my grandfather about a magic well that I must have written when I was 3.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
DP: For a long time I was convinced that everyone else had taken the class that explained how to write a novel and I'd forgotten to sign up.
While I never thought about giving up, I have had a hard time forcing myself to put my work out there to get feedback. I told my friends that 2008 was my Year of Rejection: I was going to query agents and learn that rejection wasn't going to kill me. As it turned out, so far things have worked out better than that.
QT: Is this your first book?
DP: It's the first complete novel I'm willing to show anyone.
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
DP: I wrote the original version of this book for Nanowrimo 2004, so... just over three years. That Nano was a big turning point for me: I did nothing but write all November, and I discovered I could write a full-length, complete story that had a lot of interesting characters, forward movement, and layers of action and meaning. While the book was by no means ready for prime time, it was a total story.
Both of my kids were in preschool then, so I had no excuse for not writing.
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
DP: I'm almost embarrassed to admit this, but Yes! In college I took a few short story classes, and later while working I took classes at a community college, mostly as a way to give myself deadlines for completing work.
The one thing I always heard about my writing was, "Everything going on in here is fun, but does anything ever happen?" So I decided to concentrate on structure. The best medium for learning story structure is screenwriting, and I ended up liking writing screenplays so much that I got an MFA in Film/Screenwriting from USC. I learned an incredible amount about writing there, and I wrote a couple of screenplays that got me some attention but didn't lead to anything.
After I had my first baby I took a couple of novel writing courses at UCLA Extension, mostly as a way to encourage myself to get back into writing -- classes provide deadlines, which are useful things.
QT: Do you follow a writing "routine" or schedule?
DP: The kids go to school at 8, my husband and I have breakfast together, and then I sit down to work at 9:30. If I get started immediately and don't waste time websurfing, I work until 1 or 1:30, eat some lunch, and then surf. Once I'm into the afternoon I'm useless at writing, so I read books or think about what I'll write the next day.
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your novel?
DP: The word processor has made it easy to keep making changes without making an official new draft, but I would say it's gone through four distinct iterations.
QT: Did you have beta readers for your novel?
DP: One of the problems I'd been having with the book was the ending, which I must have tried about forty-seven different ways and never made me happy. A friend said, "Write anything, okay? Just finish it!"
So I wrote the ending for the forty-eighth time and asked two friends to read the book. That was the first time anyone had seen any of it. They had wildly different reactions -- one said I was going to have no trouble finding an agent, and the other said the book needed a lot more work. I went through both of their comments, decided what resonated with me, and made the changes to the book. My husband read it in January and gave me a lot of comments, and then I sent it to two more friends in February to get feedback.
While waiting to hear from them I decided to send out a few tentative queries, just to see if my query letter would get a response. I received a partial request that first week, so I felt pretty good about the query.
QT: Did you outline your novel, or do you write from the hip?
DP: I wrote this one from the hip, which meant I ended up rewriting a lot.
As a result I've become a big believer in outlining. At the very least, I think you need to know where you're starting and where you're ending. You will always surprise yourself during the writing. You might as well have one path you already know is going to work.
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
DP: I began querying on Feb. 18 and got an offer for representation on April 6. So: five weeks?
This is the only time I've gone through the querying process.
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
DP: I did a search on Querytracker for agents looking for mysteries and crime. I then looked up each agent on Publishers Marketplace to see what kind of sales they were reporting. I checked Absolute Write for comments about the agents, to see what sort of feedback was given about them.
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
DP: The only time I did that was with the two agents I'd met and connected with at the Backspace conference last June. And I only got a response from one of the two! Other than that, no, I didn't personalize the query, in part because I found all the other prospective agents the same way: I hoped the pitch would be sufficient on its own.
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
DP: 1) Do your research. We are *so* lucky to live at a time where so much information is available easily and quickly.
2) Let's say the miraculous happens: You query an agent in the morning, you sign with the agent in the afternoon, your book goes out to editors the next day and by dinnertime you have a contract in hand for one bajillion dollars. The soonest your book will be on the shelves is eighteen months from now. There is no upside to rushing this process. Take the time now to do it right: Get feedback on your query, make sure your first five pages SING, and realize you might need to change the letter or the pages if you're not getting requests.
3) There are no secret handshakes and it's not who you know. The best query letter in the world won't get you an agent if the book needs work.
4) Lots and lots of good, reputable agents want to find new clients.
QT: Would you be willing to share your query with us?
DP: Certainly! The wonderful members of the QT forums helped me a lot; you can see the original version in this thread. This is the version I sent out:
Drusilla lives by two rules-—move often and never use your real name. Those rules have kept her and her fragile younger sister Stevie alive for eleven years. In her most recent incarnation, Drusilla has been hiding on stage in Las Vegas. When her husband Colin vanishes in the middle of their magic act, Drusilla is both furious and scared. Colin has taken her bracelet with him, a platinum bracelet that's very recognizable to the people looking for her.
Drusilla tracks Colin to Los Angeles and finds him in the middle of a web of sex, blackmail, and piles of cash. Colin is also dead. She has to find the murderer before the homicide detective, who considers her a suspect, discovers "Drusilla Thorne" has only existed for the past eight months and starts investigating her.
I saw on AgentQuery.com that you are looking for mysteries. YOU KNOW WHO I AM is a mystery novel and complete at 97,000 words. I have an MFA in Screenwriting from USC.
I have included the first five pages at the end of this email. I’d be happy to send you a complete copy of the manuscript for your review. Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you.
QT: Here is your chance to plug your book. Tell us a little about it.
DP: YOU KNOW WHO I AM is an amateur sleuth mystery that's not at all cozy. When I first talked to Andrea, my agent, I mentioned that one of the hangups I'd had when trying to write the query letter is that I couldn't think of any books to compare it to, and she said, "That's what I love about it!" The main character is not black-and-white; she has her own secrets that she'd like to keep, and she's motivated to find her husband's killer as much from a sense of self-preservation as from a sense of justice.