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Success Story Interview - James Pray

An Interview with James Pray (Kiolia on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent Donald Maass of Donald Maass 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?
James Pray:
The book is a fantasy, set in a country somewhat like the American frontier in the 1800's, minus trains and guns. People sail from town to town in large land yachts called plainships (the protagonist captains one). The original inspiration for the story was a dream with one of the ships in it; later on, the idea came back to me, but I realized the concept as it appeared in the dream would never work, so the story started off as an exploration of how it actually could work, and what sort of world would make the concept economical.
QT: How long have you been writing?
James Pray:
I wrote (dictated) my first story -- also a fantasy -- in first grade. Still have it. That would be about twenty years ago.
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
James Pray:
Five years. It might have taken a lot less time, but I wasn't very good when I started, and it took a long time to realize just how bad. To illustrate: I wrote the first draft in three months, and all the rest was spent in revisions.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
James Pray:
Praying! I never really felt like giving up, though, because I liked what I was doing most of the time. I suppose there might have been some fear of abandoning five years of work, too.
QT: Is this your first book?
James Pray:
No. I wrote a series of four novels while I was in high school -- I actually started this project because I was sick of trying to fix them. There are some cool ideas there, though, so maybe someday I'll go back to them and do a ground-up rewrite.
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
James Pray:
I did an MFA in Creative Writing/Fiction while I was finishing this book. My undergraduate training was in Engineering, though, so my grasp on the more literary matters like themes and influential schools of thought is shady at best. I'm working on it. I feel proud of myself for figuring out what subtext was before I graduated.
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
James Pray:
Not usually. It's usually either "writing in all my free time" or "off screwing around and feeling bad about it".
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
James Pray:
I started with a 75k word first draft, then re-wrote it completely and wound up with a 160k word draft. I spent a year in revisions after that, and probably re-wrote more than half of it again. Two factors did more for improving my manuscript than most anything else: A), a driving desire to eliminate every last instance of anything important happening "somehow", "just because", or for baloney reasons like characters being irrational; and B) stark terror of finishing with a manuscript that was too long. Most of the re-writes involved making sure everything happened for a good reason, and/or condensing/combining scenes.
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
James Pray:
Not really. People read the full ms at various points, but never under the obligation of offering feedback. I workshopped various parts of it during my MFA program, but short-story workshops aren't set up to be too helpful with long-form work, and most of the other students weren't sure what to do with genre fiction. The best help I got was from the instructor of a novel workshop I took for a summer program, in which we workshopped the first 120 pages. He liked to point to everything and ask WHY, and he taught me how to stop making characters do things they'd never do in order to drive my plot. I spent a year applying those lessons to the rest of the book. I think, at some point, you have to learn to ask the hard questions yourself -- to be your own, nasty beta reader.
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
James Pray:
For the first draft, yes, but it really didn't make for a very good story. I'm using a combined approach (start with a pile of problems, write some, outline some, write some more ... ) for new work, and I like that more.
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
James Pray:
This is the first novel I've queried for (I did try some noobish things with earlier works, like mailing pages to editors and so on). I queried between August and November 2010. I sent off my last round of letters in November, and would have sent more, but in early December Maass and his assistant gave me a four-week heart attack with constant updates about how they were enjoying the read, could I tell them about myself, etc., and I couldn't bring myself to send out anything more until I knew how things were going to turn out.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
James Pray:
I sent out 18.
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
James Pray:
I started off by querying an agent one of my friends at school had landed (she rejected the partial). Then I found QT, filtered by Fantasy, and started with the best-looking agents who only asked for the query letter. After I ran out of those, I cut the prologue out of my ms and started in on the agents who also wanted the first X pages; after them, I started on the agents who also wanted a synopsis. I wasn't confident in my synopsis because the novel was hard to explain succinctly, and it wound up being 5 pages single-spaced. I would have queried Mr. Maass much sooner if not for that.
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
James Pray:
I tailored the names and the first sentence of my query to the agent, where possible -- even if it was just "I saw on your site that you're interested in ...". For a few, I tried to tailor what I said about the audience the book might fit, but that didn't seem to help.
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
James Pray:
I don't know what I can offer that hasn't been said plenty already. There is a lot of good advice out there -- Evil Editor, Query Shark, Nathan Bransford, and Anne Mini were invaluable research sources for me -- and Query Tracker is the best tool I found for organizing the process (<3). I guess I'd say, be smart and self-critical about the process ... and remember that one nibble from an agent, even just a partial, makes up for a LOT of rejections.
QT: Would you be willing to share your query with us?
James Pray:
Sure -- here's the letter I sent Mr. Maass:

Query Letter:

Dear Mr. Maass:

I read on your site that your agency is currently looking for stories with a strong sense of the past's impact on the present, so I am querying you regarding my fantasy novel, Winds of a Lost Winter.

In a country of prairies where fleets of land yachts keep goods and people flowing between cities, Captain Patrick Union is a trader who has everything he wants: steady work, his own ship, and no one to answer to. When the powerful Traders' Guild shuts down its shipping to contain a strange new plague, Union thinks the resulting shortages have created a business opportunity. Opportunity turns to nightmare, however, when he finds out the Guild's quarantine plans include seizing independent ships -- like his.

A wealthy, but derided, historian believes this plague won't be contained by the quarantine, either. His readings of certain ancient manuscripts indicate it can spread on the wind, and has already eradicated one civilization. He offers Union a fortune to search out a lost city where the secret to stopping the plague may still be buried, left behind by the handful who survived the last cataclysm.

It's a job Union wouldn't touch under normal circumstances, but the money's too good to ignore, and the Guild's killers will be after him no matter what he does. He'll have to risk the ship he loves -- and accept the aid of a beautiful captain from the Guild he hates -- just to survive the voyage. The trouble is, if those old manuscripts are right about the lost city's existence, what of the demons they claim infest it?

Winds of a Lost Winter is complete at approximately 118,000 words. I hold an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from Western Michigan University, where one of my short stories won the 2010 Frostic Graduate Creative Non-Fiction Award.

A synopsis and the first five pages are pasted below per your guidelines.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


James Pray