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Success Story Interview - Heather Young

An Interview with Heather Young (fourteenwords on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent Michelle Brower of Trellis Literary Management.


QT: Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it?
Heather Young:
THE LAKE CHILDREN is literary women's fiction. It describes how the disappearance of a six-year-old girl from her family's vacation home on a remote Minnesota lake impacts not just her mother and two sisters but the three generations of women that follow. It's told through the narratives of middle sister Lucy, who knows what happened to the missing child and writes it in a journal as she's dying, and Justine, who inherits the lake house after Lucy's death and tries to make a life there for herself and her two daughters after fleeing her manipulative and possibly dangerous boyfriend.
QT: How long have you been writing?
Heather Young:
I was a lawyer for ten years, so in a way I've been writing fiction for a while. (Ha!) But I started writing in earnest six years ago.
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
Heather Young:
Six years.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
Heather Young:
When you work on one book for this long, you start feeling a little sheepish when friends ask if you're done with it and you have to say, for the five hundredth time, "No, not yet....." But whenever I despaired, I'd remember an article in Poets & Writers magazine about what distinguishes people who are still writing ten years after they began from those who aren't. The only difference, it turned out, was that the ones who were still writing were....the ones who were still writing. In other words, it's all about plugging along, writing every day, and never stopping. Otherwise you'll be one of those who stopped.
QT: Is this your first book?
Heather Young:
Yes. I'm a terrible multi-tasker when it comes to writing. One book at a time is all I can handle. I'm only now starting to think about book number two.
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
Heather Young:
I was pretty cocky at first, figuring that since I knew how to put sentences together in legal briefs and had read a ton of novels, I should be able to churn out a book without much difficulty. Then I spent a year stuck on page 50. A year! I knew the ending; I just couldn't figure out how to write the middle. Finally I decided to seek outside help in the form of a low residency MFA program. After that, I made a point of attending writers' conferences when I could manage it. I also relied heavily on books about craft. Now I can see that I was a genuinely awful writer six years ago. Thankfully, there's a learning curve, and I have managed to claw my way up it, bit by bit.
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
Heather Young:
I can only write during the day when my kids are at school, so I send them off and settle in for as long as I can.
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
Heather Young:
It was more about revising and editing as I went. But when I finally got to "the end", five years in, the book was 169,000 words. It took a brutal six months of hatchet-wielding (dead darlings everywhere!) to get it down to 108,000.
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
Heather Young:
Yes. I have a small writers' group that helped me as I wrote it. Then, when I had a complete draft, I asked three people outside the writers' group to read it. They were able to point out big-picture issues that both I and my writers' group were too close to the book to see.
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
Heather Young:
I didn't do an outline per se, but writing a book that tells two stories in alternating chapters required, at one point, a massive white board covered in rectangles, tiny writing, and red lines running all over the place. I felt like that guy in A Beautiful Mind, but it was weirdly helpful.
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
Heather Young:
I was very lucky in that it all happened within two weeks. There was a massive blizzard in New York the day I started querying, and I honestly think that helped speed the process. When you can't go to lunches with editors or hold staff meetings because everyone's stuck at home, I suspect you end up with a lot of extra time to sort through queries and read manuscripts.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
Heather Young:
Only ten, which I know is ridiculously few. I got a request for a full quickly, and that agent made me an offer of rep within three days. I then notified the other agents who had requested fulls that I had an offer, and they read and responded over the next week. I took two days to think, and decided to go with the first offering agent, Michelle, because of her enthusiasm for the book and because her ideas about how to make it better really resonated with me.
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
Heather Young:
I researched agents for months. I ended up with an Excel spreadsheet of 102 agents who represent literary and/or women's fiction, created by the same crazy person who made the white board. I used the Poets & Writers database, Publishers Marketplace, and this site. I read books similar to mine, and found out who represented them. I read agents' tweets, blogs, and any interview they'd given to anyone, anywhere. Then, for my first batch of queries, I picked ten agents who really seemed to be looking for books like mine. I also considered their tone of voice, for lack of a better term. I was looking for warmth; sympathy for what it's like to be a querying writer; and a genuine love of books. If I was going to be rejected, I wanted it to be done kindly!
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
Heather Young:
Yes. I made sure my first paragraph mentioned a book they'd represented to which I thought my book was similar, or that I knew from their website (or blog) that they were interested in books like mine.
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
Heather Young:
I think the most important thing to know is that you really can fight your way out of even the slushiest part of the slush pile. I had no personal connections to any agent I queried, and I have no publishing credits or awards. So, even if you're like me and have worked in utter obscurity for years, query with confidence and hope! More specifically: research agents exhaustively. Don't go for the big name agent just because they have a big name; query agents who are looking for your book. (They get surprisingly specific sometimes about the things they're looking for, and you can put those things in your query.) If you can manage it, send your queries during a blizzard. :)
QT: Would you be willing to share your query with us?
Heather Young:
Sure! Here it is:

Query Letter:

Dear [AGENT]

I am writing because of your interest in emotionally rich, voice-driven fiction that explores the relationships between mothers and daughters and the trauma wrought by family secrets. [I got this from her website.] I hope you will consider representing THE LAKE CHILDREN.

In 1935, six-year-old Emily vanishes from her family's vacation home on a remote Minnesota lake. Her mother stays there for the rest of her life, hoping her favorite child will walk out of the woods. Her sisters stay, too. But they aren't waiting for Emily. They know she isn't coming back.

Now Lucy, the quiet and watchful middle sister, is the only Evans girl left. What happened to Emily is a secret she promised would die with her. But as her life wanes, the lake house whispers with recriminations she can no longer ignore, and her promise feels less like loyalty and more like cowardice. So she writes the story of that summer in a notebook. She leaves it, along with the house, to the only person to whom it might matter: her grandniece Justine.

Justine sees the lake house as a chance to escape her manipulative boyfriend and -- maybe -- give her daughters the stable home she never had. But it's the beginning of the Minnesota winter. The house is dilapidated and cold, and her only neighbor is a strange old man who knows more than he's telling about the summer of 1935. Soon her troubled oldest daughter becomes obsessed with the long-ago tragedy, her mother arrives with designs on her inheritance, and her boyfriend launches a dangerous plan to get her back. In a house haunted by the sins of the women who came before her, Justine must find a strength none of them possessed in order to save herself and her children.

Through the interwoven stories of Lucy and Justine, THE LAKE CHILDREN examines the price of loyalty, the burden of remorse, and the meaning of salvation. It will appeal to readers of Gail Godwin's Flora.

[Brief bio paragraph here]

Per your submission guidelines, I am enclosing the first chapter in this email. Thank you for your time and consideration.