Success Story Interview - Linda-Raven Woods

An Interview with Linda-Raven Woods (DanyT85 on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent Gina Panettieri of Talcott Notch Literary Services.


QT: Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it?
Linda-Raven Woods:
I am an indigenous writer, raised in Alabama where I still live, and an enrolled member of the Echota Cherokees, a state tribe. Our experience, of course, is vastly different from those who grew up on reservations. I have always been interested in telling stories that capture the unique experience of being both indigenous and a native Southerner. I'm also a pop culture freak with a deep, abiding love for music, history, Southern mythos and ghost stories. So in a way, my novel Elmer & Leonard was really a culmination of everything I love. I wanted to write a sort of urban fantasy version of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, an odyssey in which Southern history, blues music and Cherokee lore would all converge.
QT: How long have you been writing?
Linda-Raven Woods:
I came from a long line of storytellers, on all sides of my family! I wrote my first book when I was nine years old. It was the story of Amigo, the spotless giraffe! I had just read Bambi, so I wanted to have a similar sort of animal story where we experience the entire arc of this creature's life from birth to death. I must have scribbled out hundreds and hundreds of handwritten pages, all on loose leaf, pink notebook paper. My dad accused me of copying it until my teacher told him, "No. she really can write!" Eventually, of course, he came to be proud of my work. Anyway, this is all a long-winded way of saying I've been a writer since at least the age of nine, but even before then I was already reading, listening to and absorbing stories.
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
Linda-Raven Woods:
I started drafting it in January of 2022, and finished it by May of that year. That was just the initial draft, though. It took about another year to finalize it.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
Linda-Raven Woods:
I never gave up on the story. There were times in the querying process when I started to feel frustrated, but whenever I got good feedback, I took it to heart and tried to see if I could apply it. Being able to get excited over a new version of the draft always gave me that second wind! When I could afford it, visiting the locations in my story always helped to inspire me. I did a complete overhaul of the novel's last chapters after spending several days in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Just being in those places, connecting with the land, would help me gain a new perspective and I would come home excited to write again.
QT: Is this your first book?
Linda-Raven Woods:
No. I wrote a novel as my creative thesis when I was in graduate school, a dual timeline story about the Trail of Tears and its impact on three contemporary Native characters in modern Tennessee. My second novel, In The Place Where Frank James is Buried, Just North of Here was short-listed for The Big Moose Novel Prize sponsored by Black Lawrence Press in 2021.
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
Linda-Raven Woods:
I earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Georgia College and State University. I also regularly attend conferences and participate actively in several writing groups.
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
Linda-Raven Woods:
Ideally, I love to write first thing in the morning when my brain is at its freshest and sharpest! After about 10pm, it goes pretty much downhill from there! However, I've also had to learn to write around my work schedule. I teach full time at a university, so this means that most months out of the year, I don't have the luxury to create my own schedule. When I was writing Elmer & Leonard, I had to learn to be a night owl because carving out a couple of hours before bedtime was really the only productive time I could squeeze in. What I learned from this experience is that, essentially, me telling myself I could only write in the morning was a myth! In truth, I could write any time of day or night that I simply set my mind to do it. Writing at night is still not my preferred time, but I learned I can do it when I have to. Sticking to that routine got me past all the usual excuses.
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
Linda-Raven Woods:
That's a great question! I mostly revised and edited the first three chapters early on. Initially, the book got a lot of traction when i attended a conference soon after I completed it, and I received several full requests from agents (which, of course, I was very excited about) but then most of those ended in rejection. So I continued editing and polishing, especially the opening chapters. For some reason, I struggled with the opening chapter more than anything. I have since learned that isn't at all unusual for most writers. I finally did a revision that started getting real traction, and I ended up with four offers before I signed with my agent
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
Linda-Raven Woods:
Not when I was drafting initially. But I later joined a writing group as I was revising.
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
Linda-Raven Woods:
I'm a pantser through and through! However, for this book, I knew it was going to be a road story so one thing I did in advance was to plot out their journey. I knew the locations were going to be crucial to the story, so I thought about how I could match up the different beats of the story with those locations. This is a journey that takes my characters across four states, from Alabama to Louisiana, and for each state, I planned the specific sites and locations I wanted them to be at given points in the story. Rather than plotting out the story, you could say I plotted out their route; their journey. I always knew once I had the journey down, the story would follow.
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
Linda-Raven Woods:
I queried this book for a total of nineteen months. But partly this was due to the fact that when I did initially start querying, I queried prematurely. It still took some time to really fine tune my query, my pitch, and to get the manuscript where it needed to be. Luckily, I didn't blow my chances by sending out all my queries at once! I took the slow route, and kept tweaking as needed. I also took advantage of conferences whenever I could afford them, as I discovered that pitching live was where I seemed to have the best luck. With that said, my query letter still needed to be strong because even when pitching in person, agents will still ask for your query letter in most cases.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
Linda-Raven Woods:
Despite my best intentions at being organized, I eventually lost count!
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
Linda-Raven Woods:
Well, of course I would always start by looking at the agent's Manuscript Wishlist and/or their agent profile on their website. If they said they were specifically seeking minority writers, that was a plus-even better if they were specifically seeking Native American authors. I would make sure they were open to urban fantasy and paranormal romance, and a big plus if they said they were seeking road trip stories! And, of course, since my story is also a gay love story, that was another box to check! Of course, like many authors, I started with a handful of some of my favorite books and authors and trying to find out which agents represented them. Unfortunately, as I discovered, many of today's best selling indigenous authors have agents who already have a full stable of clients. While considering their sales record was important to me, I also knew the right agent for me would be one who understands my vision of the story.
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
Linda-Raven Woods:
As mentioned earlier, I went through several variations of my query before I finally hit on the one that started getting traction for me. Once I felt I had that basic template down, I would basically send every agent the same pitch but I would always personalize either the first or last paragraph (or sometimes both). It would depend, of course, on who I was querying because some agents I had a more specific reason for querying than others. If it was as simple as that I knew they represented my genre, I would simply leave it at that.
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
Linda-Raven Woods:
It may sound trite, but it is really the truth: Don't give up! If you believe in your story and know it is worth telling, your perfect match is out there! If you have been querying for awhile with no traction, take a break from it and take stock of what might be wrong. That is a good time to look at your query again or your opening pages. Don't get overly attached to your first draft! Beyond that, the best advice I can give is: Know your market; study to find out and know where your book fits. Take advantage of writing conferences when you can! They are great places to learn and network.
QT: Would you be willing to share your query with us?
Linda-Raven Woods:
Here is the query for my novel Elmer & Leonard that eventually acquired representation for me with Gina Panettieri of Talcott-Notch Literary Services:

Query Letter:

Dear Gina:
Elmer & Leonard, a 95k upmarket urban fantasy, is a bit of O Brother, Where Art Thou? meets True Blood, a road trip story that delves deep into the heat of Southern mythos. As an indigenous author whose stories center on the experiences of urban Natives in the modern South, my style can best be described as what might happen if Sherman Alexie met up with Charlaine Harris. Since your bio states you are currently seeking upmarket and book club fiction, I hope you might find Elmer & Leonard a potential fit.
Leonard Lusk is a young Native American who has just lost his wife of nine years. Not only has Leonard been left to nurse many regrets over his marriage, but he has also been at lifelong odds with everything—his family, his tribe, his culture, even his own sexuality. Leonard's life seems to be on a perpetual path of nowhere going to nowhere—that is, until he attends a concert and crosses paths with a magnetic blues prodigy who is harboring a 160-year-old secret.
But Elmer Garrison has a problem of his own. To the world, he is Elmer Gantry, a blues superstar who has been packaged as a novelty act—a kid who can play the blues like nobody's business. But in reality Elmer is an Undead, a vampire kid who was "turned" during the Civil War when he struck his own version of the "deal at the crossroads" with The Death Angel, a vampiric creature who fed off the Civil War dead.
Now, after having grown jaded with immortal existence, Elmer wants just two things—a chance to record a final record that will be his calling card to The Death Angel, and to return to his home in Vicksburg, Mississippi to the spot where his mortal life ended so that The Death Angel can claim him. When Leonard offers Elmer an "out" ( he can get him to Nashville to make his record), Elmer initially sees Leonard as the perfect dupe for his plan. But what neither of them bargain on is the fact that this scheme will eventually result in a road trip across the modern South—an odyssey in survival that will take them deep into its heart of darkness. Nor the fact that this oddly mismatched pair will find love again—with each other. But will their love be enough to convince Elmer that immortality is worth hanging onto for just a little while longer?
As Leonard discovers that he is spiraling ever deeper into a world where the lines between the living and the dead have blurred, he realizes this is a journey that will force him to reevaluate everything he thought he knew about himself, about love and what it takes to find redemption. Elmer & Leonard is a paranormal love story set against the canvas of the American South, where the mythical crossroads still has the power to entrap souls and the Mississippi's current still has the power to sweep away all in its path.
I am an enrolled member of the Echota Cherokee tribe of Alabama. I hold an MFA degree in Creative Writing from Georgia College & State University, am a two-time recipient of The Hackney Literary Award and also of The Andrew Glaze Prize for Poetry. My work has appeared in The Birmingham Southern Arts Journal, The Huffington Post, Breathe online literary journal, and many others. Elmer & Leonard was recently one of the Top Three finalists in Adult Fiction for a writer/editor mentorship with Random House editor Caitlin McKenna.
I look forward to hearing from you!
Linda-Raven Woods