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Success Story Interview - Judith Gonda

An Interview with Judith Gonda (determined1 on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent Dawn Dowdle of Blue Ridge 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?
Judith Gonda:
My book, FRIGHT ON, is about a mystery novelist whose university dean husband becomes the prime suspect in the murder investigation of two fellow deans. To clear her husband she must find the real killer, but fears where the trail may lead her.

Pamela Thomas-Graham’s Ivy League mystery series set at Harvard, Yale and Princeton was a big influence for my series set at different schools in the Pac-12 Conference. FRIGHT ON features the University of Southern California campus. I’ve always loved mysteries, from Agatha Christie to Sue Grafton. I’m also a big Charles Dickens fan. I wanted to write a story that was timely and rooted in current social issues, namely, how as a society we seem to be constantly on edge since 9/11. I’m a psychologist and interested in the way personality interacts with situation. My MC’s anxiety makes her vulnerable to the fear generated by the sensationalism of the media and TV shows and films. So when she lands in a situation where she must track down a killer, not only must she overcome her legitimate fear of danger to clear her husband, she must overcome some of her more personal fears, real and imagined, too. The humor with heart tone is inspired by my love of Bridget Jones’s Diary and Modern Family. Sometimes when stressful like events occur, like a husband’s arrest, the only thing that keeps us sane is humor—it’s a coping mechanism. Also, I wanted an older female MC who was relatable and hip, more Netflix’s Grace and Frankie than Miss Marple. Lastly, I’ve always been into school spirit (former song girl in high school and college) and I love all things related to education (Ph.D. in Educational Psychology). So writing stories set around college campuses is pure bliss for me.
QT: How long have you been writing?
Judith Gonda:
I started taking a few courses at UCLA Extension Writers Program in 2007. So for fiction, since then. But my previous incarnation as a research psychologist helped me with the endurance aspect needed to complete a book—my dissertation, research publications, and grant-writing experience prepared me for the marathon.
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
Judith Gonda:
Since 2007.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
Judith Gonda:
Oh yes, there were dark times. But my story continued to entertain me during all the endless revisions so I took that as a good sign. QueryTracker helped me immensely, in particular the comments section for each agent. Both the desperation and encouraging words of other authors in the query trenches were comforting and made me feel understood. Reading the success stories kept me going because I saw that their perseverance paid off.
QT: Is this your first book?
Judith Gonda:
It is.
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
Judith Gonda:
I was an English minor as an undergrad. And the UCLA Extension Writers Program courses mentioned earlier. And I’ve taken a few other courses taught by agents offered by Writers Digest and Writing Pad. Plus, I started out by reading several books on writing and mystery writing.
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
Judith Gonda:
I’m almost always thinking about plotting, characters, situations, puns, so I’m constantly jotting down stuff on an open file for my current WIP. Once I know where I’m going, I write in long spurts until my brain fries, taking breaks for laps around my backyard. Time seems to fly when I’m really into it and oftentimes I write into the wee hours, and end up scaring myself with my own suspense.
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
Judith Gonda:
Too many to count, but at least 20 times. It was 109,000 words when I started querying. It’s now 73,000.
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
Judith Gonda:
My two daughters. I know, shouldn’t use family members. But one is a professional TV writer who gives great notes and the other is an avid reader who provides valuable constructive criticism. I also hired a developmental editor who I found very helpful in refining my MS. And anytime I saw an opportunity for free or charity auction critiques from agents or editors I participated. Also, one recent contest (PitchWars) helped me find two potential CPs through a mutual mentor.
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
Judith Gonda:
I started out from the hip but had a mental outline based on what I learned from books on writing. But I quickly realized I needed a written outline to keep all the threads straight and to pace it properly.
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
Judith Gonda:
Started with the 109,000-word version in 2011. Had an R&R in 2012 that reduced it to 81,000. I started querying the current 73,000-word version in July 2015.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
Judith Gonda:
A lot. Mainly for the earlier 109,000-word version. But even from the start, I kept getting requests (over two dozen total) and positive feedback. Even had one agent who said she was “this close to offering.” Maddening, but that kept me going because I knew I was doing something right. But for the 73,000-word version, I sent out about 25 and got several requests.
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
Judith Gonda:
Those who represented mystery and crime, chick lit, women’s fiction.
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
Judith Gonda:
I tried to whenever possible with information garnered online.
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
Judith Gonda:
Keep. At. It. Stay the course. Don’t give up. You can think about it, wallow for a while, nurse your wounds, then get back in that saddle and try again. I do think practice makes perfect, 10,000 hours, hanging in there even when you’re down, all works. I’m inspired by athletes like Kobe Bryant, and sayings like “Tough times never last, tough people do.” And rewards work too, whether it’s online shopping or a tempting treat. Plus, put yourself out there. Join professional associations like Sisters in Crime if you write mysteries, enter contests, take courses from agents, read agent and writer blogs and tweets, go to a conference and pitch to an agent. I learned something from every experience and have found other writers to be very generous and kind, agents too. There’s a lot of helpful information online, and becoming a premium QueryTracker member was one of the best things I did.
QT: Would you be willing to share your query with us?
Judith Gonda:
Of course, so many authors helped me by sharing theirs. This is the exact query, minus a paragraph about my marketing plans.

Query Letter:

Dear Mrs. Dowdle,

Thank you for starring my #PitMad pitch yesterday on Twitter: LAPD volunteer sets out to clear her dean husband when he’s accused of murder but the trail leads back to him GONE GIRL+CASTLE #PitMad #A #M.

Anxiety-prone psychologist Kendra Madison thinks she has the perfect plan to combat her midlife crisis. The pun-loving empty nester volunteers for LAPD’s Crisis Response Team so she can help victims at crime scenes while at the same time gather material for her mystery novel—all from the safety of the sidelines. But when a terrorist’s car bomb explodes right after she drops off her hot-tempered husband Mark, a USC dean, at LAX, so does her plan for avoiding danger.

While Mark is safe, Kendra’s relief soon turns to horror when she learns he’s arrested for the murder of another USC dean killed in the explosion. With Mark claiming a set-up and the authorities convinced of his guilt, Kendra sets out to find the real killer. Clues lead her to uncover an apparent terrorist plot, academic intrigue, and secret love triangles. Plus, she finds no one is who he or she appears to be, including her husband. As Kendra gets closer to finding the truth, the body count grows. And so does her dread. She fears for her own safety, but she also fears Mark might be the real killer.

FRIGHT ON (the title is a play on USC’s slogan: Fight on!) is a mystery set in Los Angeles. It is the first book in a planned series of academic mysteries featuring the Pac-12 Athletic Conference and is inspired by Pamela Thomas-Graham’s Ivy League Mystery series. I am currently plotting the second book in the series, TROUBLE BRUIN, featuring UCLA. Readers who enjoy Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone mysteries and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels might also like Kendra Madison mysteries.

My professional background includes academia and litigation consulting. My PhD in educational psychology with an emphasis on adult development and aging is from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While at USC I worked as a postdoctoral fellow, a research associate, and an instructor. I’ve published in both academic journals and professional legal magazines. And like Kendra, I’m married to a former USC dean.

I’ve taken several courses at UCLA Extension Writer’s Program and I’m a member of Sisters in Crime and Guppies.

FRIGHT ON is first person POV, has diverse characters, and is complete at 73,000 words. The full manuscript is available upon request.

I’ve attached a synopsis and the first three chapters as two separate Word documents.

Thank you for your time and consideration.