Success Story Interview - Christina Dalcher

An Interview with Christina Dalcher (MadAboutTheBook on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent Alec Shane of Writers House.


QT: Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it?
Christina Dalcher:
LUCKY THIRTEEN is an adult thriller featuring a protagonist who I once referred to as "Jack Reacher in a skirt." She's a loner with a chip on her shoulder, a few handguns, and a strong sense of noblesse oblige. And she's a linguist. Not a polyglot, translator, or interpreter, but a language scientist.

As for inspiration, well, I suppose I have Lee Child and Jack Reacher to thank. In one of the Reacher books, Child put in a bit of linguistics and I thought, "Wow – I could do this." Given my background (I have a Ph.D. in theoretical linguistics), I figured I was in a good position to create a character who solves mysteries and catches bad guys in a unique sort of way.
QT: How long have you been writing?
Christina Dalcher:
Since I was about five years old. Oh – you mean writing fiction? Since August 7, 2014. I remember the date exactly. Prior to that, I penned a ton of academic works on rather unmarketable subjects having to do with language change and acoustic analysis.
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
Christina Dalcher:
If I told you, you probably wouldn't believe me! But the truth is out there on the web somewhere, so I might as well fess up. I started in November 2014 and wrote the first draft in five weeks.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
Christina Dalcher:
When I initially got the writing bug, I cranked out a YA ghost story and was naïve enough to think that all I had to do was write it, pitch it to agents, and—poof!—I'd have a book in no time. Things don't work that way, and even successful authors have to play the waiting game with poise and patience. I shelved the YA novel, worked on a completely different (non-fiction) project, and returned to the writing trenches with the ideas for LUCKY THIRTEEN.
QT: Is this your first book?
Christina Dalcher:
Well, I do have a bound copy of my dissertation upstairs, but aside from the YA work mentioned above, this is it.
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
Christina Dalcher:
No. No I don't. I do, however, own a pile of Stephen King books.
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
Christina Dalcher:
I write when I'm inspired, which is a lot of the time. If I'm working on a new project or revisions, I'll start out first thing in the morning and work until mid-to-late afternoon. In between longer projects, I concoct flash fiction and sprinkle a healthy dose of gardening and cooking and reading throughout my day.
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
Christina Dalcher:
I did a chapter-by-chapter edit before querying, but the bones of LUCKY THIRTEEN didn't change much. After my agent's editorial letter, I cut and rewrote about a third of the book (to modify a character). Further revisions followed, but none were as substantial as that major reworking.
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
Christina Dalcher:
In the initial stages, I had critique partners who read very closely. Once the major rewrite was complete, I moved to beta readers so I could get feedback on the bigger picture and developmental issues. And I'm lucky to have one of the best beta readers I can imagine.
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
Christina Dalcher:
I confess – I'm a pantser! I do start out with a clear idea of the good guy, bad guy, skeleton of the story, and major plot points and turns. From there, things happen and characters jump in as I'm writing.
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
Christina Dalcher:
LUCKY THIRTEEN spent a bit less than four weeks from the first query to the first offer of representation. Needless to say, I was shocked.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
Christina Dalcher:
Quite a few, actually. But I queried in rounds, selecting a few agents who I knew to be lightning-quick responders so I'd know right away if I needed to re-work the query letter. Winter 2015 was also a hot time for Twitter pitch contests like Sun vs. Snow, PitMad, AdPit, and AgentMatch, so in addition to the traditional query, I entered a few of those. In a rather unexpected twist of fate, my AgentMatch submission went live before I had the chance to withdraw it, and Alec requested the full. I had never actually queried the agent I ended up signing with!
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
Christina Dalcher:
I'm a research maniac, so I looked everywhere, beginning with QueryTracker. My first step was to create a long list of agents who represent thrillers and mysteries. From there, I checked their Publishers Marketplace pages, agency websites, manuscript wish-lists, and social network profiles. I also followed hashtags like #TenQueries on Twitter, to see what sorts of query elements were successful.
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
Christina Dalcher:
Absolutely! In some cases, the personalisation was a brief reference to what the agent was looking for and how I had found that out. In other cases—if they had represented titles that were very similar to mine or had a fondness for my type of protagonist—I personalised the letter with a bit more detail.
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
Christina Dalcher:
Read everything you can about query letters (tons of information is available on the Internet). Look closely at manuscript wish lists (#MSWL on Twitter) and XQueries hashtags (such as #TenQueries) to get a sense of what agents want and what they don't want. Follow submission guidelines to the T. Keep your query brief, professional, and avoid gimmicks. For goodness' sake, use an appropriate title (Mr/Ms/Miss/Dr) and spell the agent's name correctly. Include basic information about your work, such as age-group, genre, comp titles, and word-count. Get immediately to the heart of the matter: what your book is about. Be sure to make the characters, goals, and stakes clear, and don't be afraid to use the same voice in your query as in your work.

Above all, write a darn good book and query only when you're confident it's in the best shape it can be!

Query Letter:

The pitch I used in my query is the same one I submitted to Agent Match and is publicly available on the Internet. Here's the letter, but keep in mind that certain elements of the plot have changed quite a bit.

LUCKY THIRTEEN, an adult thriller with a strong female protagonist, would fit on the bookshelf between Stieg Larsson's Millennium Series and Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels. It treads the line between mystery and thriller and is complete at 83,000 words.

In Washington, DC, politics isn't the only rat race.

Linguist and former FBI trainee Danny Jones has lost everything – parents, fiance, job – and now all she wants is to be left the hell alone. Preferably with a nice bottle of bourbon. But when she comes home to a dead girlfriend and a cryptic message from former colleague, Colin, Danny knows she should get involved. When Colin turns up dead and the cops turn to Danny, she doesn't have a choice.

Danny's fallen from university professor to waitress, been booted out of the FBI's Special Agent training program for a one-time screwup, and now – when things can't get any blacker – she's the only link between two unexplained deaths in Washington, DC. With the cops looking closely at her knowledge of Arabic and her suspicious circle of academic colleagues, Danny runs to the only person she can trust – linguist and former cryptographer Eddie Brown, AKA Off-the-Grid-Ed. Too bad he's in love with her. She's been off men since her fiancé got whacked five years ago.

Danny can count the clues on one lousy hand: a pile of love letters from Colin's latest fling, a puzzling lead from a renowned child psychologist, and a recording of two men in a bar. Employing every weapon in her language arsenal – from text analysis to voice recognition to dialect studies – Danny turns those clues into assets.

As the papers report more deaths, Danny finds out just what happened to her friend Colin. And she discovers the identity of the madman who's launched a personal war against adulterers, starting with his own wife.

The race has begun. To save herself, Eddie, and two innocent people, Danny Jones needs to place first.

I have a PhD in Linguistics and a number of published academic works. [Personal note to agent here]