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Success Story Interview - AJ Sass

An Interview with AJ Sass (5alchow on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent Jordan Hamessley of JABberwocky Literary Agency.


QT: Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it?
AJ Sass:
ANA ON THE EDGE is a Middle Grade contemporary story about a competitive twelve-year-old figure skater navigating the ins and outs of a non-binary gender identity in her rigidly gendered sport. I'm non-binary myself, and an avid figure skater (albeit not quite as athletically gifted as my talented main character). This is a story that would've made me feel seen as a kid. I wanted to offer a glimpse of the internal conflict faced by queer kids who participate in gendered athletics, interspersed with a cast of diverse, sometimes quirky characters who support the main character on her journey toward self-realization.
QT: How long have you been writing?
AJ Sass:
I've been writing since my parents bought me my first paper journal (age seven). It wasn't until my early 20s that I realized I might want to write fiction for a living, though. Incidentally, this was also right around the time I started law school and turned to writing short stories as a creative outlet. Around that same time, I discovered interviews online with writers who had been told to make their queer characters straight to ensure publication and more marketability. As someone who writes from a queer perspective, that completely turned me off and I held onto that memory long after the tide seemed to be turning in the publishing industry. This is part of the reason it took me so long to decide to query.
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
AJ Sass:
I started this story as part of my homework for the Children's Book Academy Middle Grade Mastery class in January 2018. It felt polished enough to begin querying in September 2018.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
AJ Sass:
Giving up on this book didn't feel like an option, because I kept telling myself that I had a deadline to meet and people expecting to read it. This was largely due to a pitch contest associated with the CBA writing course. I'd had some initial interest from the contest judges (who were comprised of agents and editors) when I was only about 10 pages into drafting this manuscript. That interest propelled me forward. Drafting (and later revising) wasn't without snags along the way, but that self-imposed deadline helped me stick with my story until it felt query-ready.
QT: Is this your first book?
AJ Sass:
It's the first book I've completed to a stage where I was willing to query agents, yes. I've written several first-draft, semi-complete manuscripts in the past, as well as shorter stories.
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
AJ Sass:
Not really. I took several legal writing courses in law school (which I'd argue taught me the exact opposite type of writing skills that you'd want to use for a novel), a pair of community college writing courses taken about 12 years apart, and the online CBA Middle Grade course I mentioned earlier. Otherwise, it's just been trial and error and writing for the fun of it.
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
AJ Sass:
I try to write before work and on weekends, but my success in those respects varies considerably. It definitely helps to define deadlines. I find myself naturally getting up earlier and feeling more motivated to push through creative blocks when I feel like someone is expecting something from me (be it a critique partner, beta reader, enthusiastic friend, or now my agent!).
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
AJ Sass:
I never completed a full rewrite of this story. Thanks to a comprehensive outline, the structure was there in draft one (albeit quite messily executed since I wrote the first draft in just a handful of weeks). Both the first third and the final third of my story required heavy revisions, however, and I probably went through 7-8 read-throughs to line edit before I felt ready to query agents.
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
AJ Sass:
Yes, absolutely. My CBA class offered the option of matching writers up in small critique groups. Long after the class ended, I kept in touch with these writers and they provided feedback on various drafts of my manuscript. I was also paired up with an already-agented writer via a mentorship program called #WriteMentor over the summer, so I had a dedicated advocate providing structural and line-by-line feedback, which was wonderful.I highly recommend a mentorship relationship to any aspiring writer if they can find one.

Lastly, I found beta readers (plus one very special CP who quickly became a close friend outside of the realm of writing) via social media. Twitter has a wonderfully supportive community of writers at all stages in their publishing journeys. I was fortunate to receive an enthusiastic response to my story's premise, which led to offers of beta reads from other aspiring authors, a publishing house intern, and authors who are soon to be or already published. My story would not have been as strong as it is now without selfless help from all of these people.
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
AJ Sass:
In the past, I've always been a pantser, chasing compelling character ideas and just hoping a plot would naturally fall into place as I wrote. It rarely did for longer than a few thousand words. Going into this current manuscript, I outlined the full story for the first time in my life. Things did end up changing when I revised it, but that outline kept me on track during my first draft. I'm officially a pre-planning convert.
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
AJ Sass:
This is my first time querying any project. Aside from the pitch contest earlier this year where I got some interest when my book was still a work-in-progress, my time in the query trenches was mercifully short. I sent my first queries out on 9/9, received my first offer 17 days later, and officially made my decision on 10/10.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
AJ Sass:
Since there was an agent showcase associated with my summer mentorship program where I received some requests, and I had some class CBA contest judges who requested my full earlier this year, I sent out more queries in my initial batch than I'd intended on to ensure I had the chance to query agents on my own carefully curated list, as well as send to those who requested via the showcase and pitch contests. I sent out 24 queries in total.
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
AJ Sass:
For the contest and showcase requests, I researched each agent prior to sending material to them (rather than sending it off to anyone who liked my Twitter pitch, for instance). If it looked like we'd be a good match and I felt enthusiastic about the prospect of working with them, I sent those agents my materials.

For the list I came up with on my own, I did a deeper dive to identify who I should query. I purchased a subscription to Publishers Marketplace to look up any reported sales and learn more about their agencies. I read what they shared on Twitter and in blog interviews, checked the Manuscript Wishlist website and noted any wishlist items that aligned with my current manuscript (plus future project ideas), read their agency bios, and visited client websites to get a sense of the people they already represented. If I could find a preferred query letter format (e.g., comps + manuscript details before the pitch or vice versa, a preference for personalization or aversion to it, etc.), that also got noted. The spreadsheet I created to keep track of my queries was full to the brim of this type of information. It is possible I went a tad overboard, but I wanted to be thorough.
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
AJ Sass:
Usually, yes (although my rate of success doesn't seem to have been tied to whether or not I personalized). I will say this: Three of the agents I received offers from got little to no personalization in their queries, and my personalized line to the other offering agent was a bit cringeworthy, as it was related more to a shared interest than anything about writing. Many other agents who passed did send me a response that sometimes referenced my personalized message. If you want to personalize, and it relates to your story or the reason you chose to query an agent, go for it. But a few of my attempts were definite stretches and may have been better left unsaid, in retrospect.
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
AJ Sass:
Make sure your manuscript is as polished and perfect as you can make it before querying. I can't stress this enough. With all the online pitch contests out there, the temptation to participate too soon may be strong. I found myself barely managing to drag myself away from the keyboard on those days so I wouldn't pitch at a stage when my manuscript wasn't ready. Get beta readers and critique partners. If you keep getting markedly similar comments and feedback, evaluate whether you should make changes. Make changes as needed. Get more readers until people are just suggesting non-substantive line edits and can't find anything except small things to nitpick.

It also doesn't hurt to write your query at an early stage of your first draft. I had to do it when I was just starting to write draft one and it helped identify the stakes my main character would face and get to the heart of my story. I probably revised my query letter close to the same number of times as my actual manuscript, so starting it early on gave me the time and flexibility to make tweaks as needed. Some of the agents I submitted to also requested a one-page synopsis, which was much harder to write than I initially assumed. Write that well before querying too, if you're able.

Finally, take the plunge. I sometimes wish I'd queried years ago (although none of my stories were as polished as my current manuscript, so maybe that wouldn't have gone super well). But even when I kept hearing my current manuscript was ready, I waited until that last possible minute to start querying due to a fear of rejection.

Rejection is a part of this process. Learn to embrace it, but never stop assessing what might need improvement as you start to receive agent responses. Getting a lot of form rejections on your initial query? Solicit more critiques and rework it. Getting partial requests but no fulls? Evaluate what could be strengthened in your opening pages. And so on.
QT: Would you be willing to share your query with us?
AJ Sass:
Sure. Note that I didn't personalize my query to Jordan (beyond sending her a query about a story that checked off items on her manuscript wishlist).

Query Letter:

Twelve-year-old ice skater Ana must win her next big competition to justify all the money Mom has spent on choreography and costumes. But after she meets transgender boy Hayden at the rink, her doubts about her own gender identity throw her for a loop she wasn’t expecting.

When her new choreographer wants her to portray a princess in her competition program, Ana is less than thrilled. She isn’t a frilly-dress kind of girl. Nevertheless, she’s determined not to let these feelings derail her dream of a national title after years of hard work and Mom’s many sacrifices. After befriending Hayden, Ana learns that her own pronouns might not be as fixed as the theme of her skating program. As her first big competition of the season approaches, Ana must decide whether being true to herself is worth risking everything she’s trained for, on top of letting down Mom, Hayden, and all the people who believe in her.

ANA ON THE EDGE is middle grade contemporary #ownvoices LGBTQ fiction, complete at 49,000 words. This story offers a behind-the-scenes look into the world of competitive figure skating, alongside a depiction of queer experience that remains underrepresented in middle grade fiction. While Ana’s non-binary gender may be unfamiliar to some readers, her path to understanding and defining an intrinsic part of her identity should be relatable to many. Her story should appeal to fans of GEORGE and GRACEFULLY GRAYSON and has secondary character series potential in the spirit of Jason Reynolds’ TRACK novels.

[Personalized paragraph that explained my #ownvoices connection to the material, what I do for a living, and a note about a scholarship award I won based on a portion of the manuscript I queried.]

Thank you for your time and consideration.