Lindsay Smith has recently signed with agent Weronika Janczuk of D4EO Literary Agency. Lindsay, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Congratulations and good luck.
QueryTracker: Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it?
Lindsay Smith: UNDER A DEAD MOON is a fantasy novel that follows a cocky young sorceress as she turns to the same forbidden magic that threatens her kingdom in a dangerous attempt to save it. My sorceress, Fierine, was originally designed as the villain for a completely separate project, but I have a weakness for great villains—I spent so much time fleshing out her backstory, trying to give her realistic motivations, that I realized I was way more interested in the stories she had to tell than I was in the initial project! Her world grew organically as I pieced together her tale, but I was probably most inspired by Imperial Russia on the brink of revolution: a convoluted caste system confronted with a rapidly growing industry and a rising working class. Add in varying schools of magic, sexy inquisitors, and demons, and you've got plenty of juicy conflict and ethical quandaries.
QT: How long have you been writing?
LS: My parents can probably produce Magic Marker preschool "retellings" of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I started writing obsessively in my teens, when writing was a defense mechanism to stave off boredom in class. As a working adult, writing gives me creative fulfillment—I can go to bed knowing I did more than work, eat, and watch trashy paranormal reality shows. (Though there's plenty of that, too.)
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
LS: The roots of Fierine's story came to me in 2005, but I didn't focus on her and her world until NaNoWriMo in 2009. I had a loose list of milestones in her life going in, and on the other side of November, I had a 55,000 word mess.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
LS: Oh, absolutely. I'd spend hours chipping away at what I hoped was the perfect sentence, only to pick up whatever book I was reading and get slapped in the face by the disparity between my writing and a published author's. But then I'd look back at older writing, and realize how far I'd come; how much further I hoped I could go. I kept reading, I kept writing, and I kept rewriting. And every now and then I'd look back on my old writing and think "hey, that was actually kinda good."
QT: Is this your first book?
LS: I've been participating in NaNoWriMo since 2003, but UNDER A DEAD MOON was the first book I'd written that I really loved enough to clean up and take out on submission. I've got reams of Manuscripts of a Misspent Youth, two trunk novels, one "possibly worth cleaning up" novel, and then another work in progress I'm pretty happy with (with more in the outlining stage).
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
LS: My degree is in Russian Studies and Computer Security, so unfortunately my college days were spent translating Boris & Masha dialogues and writing cracker-dry policy papers. I learned by reading obsessively, writing constantly, and embarrassing myself in online writing communities.
QT: Do you follow a writing "routine" or schedule?
LS: I always write on my lunch break, then aim for at least 45 minutes of writing/editing in the evenings. Weekend mornings are for tea and typing. I average about 3500 – 5000 words a week on this schedule, though I'm hoping to shift my work schedule around so I can write for an hour every morning before I head out the door. Something about barely-consciousness and Earl Grey makes the words flow.
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
LS: A few months after I finished the NaNoWriMo draft of UNDER A DEAD MOON, I started over from the beginning, using that draft as just a rough outline. I'm really bad about editing as I go, but I'd say most of my chapters went through at least three rounds of edits.
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
LS: Yes—I have an excellent critique partner who also writes fantasy. I learned so much not only from his assessments, but from critiquing his writing too. Crit partners are a must for helping you take a step back. Without him my novel would be full of phrases like "hunched Justicars hunching."
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
LS: I like to have the most salient points planned out, and a good idea of where everything is leading, but otherwise I just write whatever scene feels most appropriate to come next. If I start to hate writing a particular scene, it probably means it's not accomplishing anything, and I need to reconsider the chain of events. I like to have lots of subplots going on, so there's always an exciting idea to entertain, and the added thrill of "how in the world am I going to tie this all together?" Then there's that awesome moment where I realize how it fits perfectly—far more neatly than if I'd designed it that way. I guess my subconscious always knows what it's doing, even when I don't.
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
LS: Well, it's an odd story. I'd just finished UNDER A DEAD MOON, which I'd mostly edited along the way, when the QueryTracker blog hosted an adult genre pitch contest with Weronika Janczuk in March. I've long admired Weronika through her blog, but was far too intimidated by her awesomeness to consider her for my first round of querying. I entered the contest as a way of preparing myself for the long, painful querying process and inevitable rejections. While I waited for the contest results, I cleaned up my book's ickiest chapters and put together my query letter.
Then, while sitting at the airport before a trip, I found out I'd won the grand prize—a query letter + first 10 pages critique, and a full manuscript request. Elation; terror; panic. I only had about half the novel loaded on my iPad, so I used the weekend to further tidy that half of the novel, then sent the full off to Weronika when I got home. I started the querying process to dilute my panic while I waited on Weronika to read the full, but within five weeks, she'd offered me representation.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
LS: About a dozen. They were pretty evenly divided between rejections (pain), no responses (anguish), and full/partial requests (panic).
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
LS: Don't be afraid. Don't panic (but if you must, have lots of cake on hand). Don't take it personally. And don't shotgun it—don't query an agent unless you can truly, honestly see yourself working with them and having a successful business relationship with them. I think we tend to place agents on pedestals, when we should think of them as just another avid reader who's making a living out of what they love. Show (don't tell) them you have a great story to share, and if they're the right agent for your work, they'll be just as enthusiastic about your book as you are. If you're fortunate enough to receive an offer, or multiple offers, then you'll be a lot happier with your decision if you chose your agents wisely beforehand.
If you're not getting results, then always, always look for opportunities to improve your query and your book. QueryShark, First Page Shooter, pitch contests, writing groups—there are so many resources online that there's no reason not to challenge yourself.
And read! Read everything in your genre! Read plenty outside your genre! Read awesome books and figure out what works. Don't intentionally seek out "bad" books, but if a book isn't working for you, figure out why. Read out loud and learn the sounds and countours of great writing. Then keep writing.
QT: Would you be willing to share your query with us?
LS: I don't mind sharing it, but I should point out that Weronika requested my ms off of my pitch sentence and first 100 words only, and that other agents who requested material from me have publicly stated they emphasize sample pages over the query letter. What I'm trying to say is—don't feel like you should take notes.
In UNDER A DEAD MOON, a cocky young sorceress turns to the same forbidden magic that threatens her kingdom in a dangerous attempt to save it...
Powerful magic comes easily to Lady Fierine Calloun, daughter of the late, great Archmage Calloun. She's too clever to have the magic burned out of her, and too wealthy to be relegated to an undermage's life, fueling the Empire's factories. Smart mages know to avoid the darker magic of long-imprisoned demons, who can only breach their mountain prison to wreak havoc under a Dead Moon.
But the prison's seals are weakening—Fierine witnesses it herself. The First Emperor banished the demons, and acknowledging the prison's flaws is tantamount to treason. Fierine knows there must be a better way to hold the demons at bay—and she finds it in their own dark magic.
As revolution brews in the factories and the Emperor launches a war at sea, Fierine and a cabal of like-minded mages devise a plan to save the Empire from its demons once and for all. But the dark magic comes with a heavy price, and everywhere Fierine turns, she finds the ruby-eyed Inquisitor who's sworn to kill any mages who take their magic too far. Fierine must choose between her privileged life chasing her father's legacy, and the promise of a new Empire—one forged with dark magic that might kill her before she can decide.
UNDER A DEAD MOON is a 108,000 word fantasy novel that will appeal to fans of Patrick Rothfuss and N. K. Jemisin with its intricate magical system, unusual setting, and complicated ethical questions.