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Success Story Interview - Lisa Stringfellow

An Interview with Lisa Stringfellow (engagereaders on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent Lindsay Davis Auld 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?
Lisa Stringfellow:
My manuscript is a MG contemporary fantasy set in the Caribbean. My MC is a West Indian girl and the novel connects strongly to my family background, as my father emigrated from Barbados.

The book is about 12-year-old Kela who is grieving and guilt-ridden about her mother's recent death and is able to wish on a mermaid's comb to bring her mother back from the dead.

I am a middle school English teacher and my inspiration for this story came from thinking about two books I loved, The Tale of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler and Coraline by Neil Gaiman. I thought it would be interesting to write a dark mermaid story, but I had never read a story set in the Caribbean or that had a West Indian protagonist. The 12-year-old me would have loved a story like that.
QT: How long have you been writing?
Lisa Stringfellow:
I have been writing seriously for about five years, but honestly I've been writing all of my life. I still have the short stories I wrote in high school (but they are so sappy!).
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
Lisa Stringfellow:
I wrote Dark Tide in 2013 for NaNoWriMo. I "won" NaNoWriMo by getting to 50,000 words, but I didn't finish the story until the following spring. I continued to work on revisions until January 2018 when I began to query.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
Lisa Stringfellow:
Yes! Just after I completed the first draft, I signed up for an editing class and received a really harsh critique. It made me want to stop writing, but a kind writer in the class reminded me that critiques are subjective and to keep working if the story was important to me. It was wonderful advice and I've always been appreciative.
QT: Is this your first book?
Lisa Stringfellow:
This is the first novel I have completed, but I have other partial manuscripts and one other completed novel draft.
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
Lisa Stringfellow:
I was an English major in college and have a master's degree in education with a focus on literacy and technology. I have been a middle school English teacher for over 23 years. I've also taken various writing craft classes for the past several years.
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
Lisa Stringfellow:
Not really. I tend to write in the evening or on weekends when I have quiet at home.
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
Lisa Stringfellow:
After I had a finished first draft, I began revising. I shared it with my critique partners, signed up for several manuscript workshops, and eventually was accepted to two mentorship programs. Overall, I revised the manuscript from beginning to end at least six times, but sections were revised much more than that.
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
Lisa Stringfellow:
I was fortunate to be accepted into Round 2 of Author Mentor Match and also the Writing in the Margins mentorships at the same time. Last spring, I sent both mentors my complete manuscript and they did full critiques and wrote editorial letters. I emailed and talked by phone with them and they helped me reshape and tighten the novel. It was an amazing experience.
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
Lisa Stringfellow:
I had a rough idea of the story before I began, but I didn't have a written outline. I did have particular scenes in mind and sometimes I wrote out of order to write what I knew, then wrote the scenes that needed to come before and after.

I now use a little more structure when I write. I like to have a loose list of scenes, but I am flexible enough to add, remove, or move them around as I write. I guess I'm something between a planner and a panster.
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
Lisa Stringfellow:
Dark Tide is the first book I queried. I had read enough agent interviews to know that the biggest mistake writers often make is to query too early. I heeded that advice and didn't query until I felt it was absolutely the best I could make it. It paid off because I found my agent after six weeks in my first round of querying.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
Lisa Stringfellow:
I sent 13 query letters.
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
Lisa Stringfellow:
I had collected a list of agents interested in middle grade fantasy from following #MSWL on Twitter and searching I also was helped by my one of my mentors who sent me a list of agents she thought might be a good match. I also looked up all of the agents on Publishers Marketplace to see their sales and who they represented, so I could get a sense of their experience and tastes.
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
Lisa Stringfellow:
Yes, I did tailor the opening of the query letters to each agent. I explained why I thought they might be a good fit and if I had met them in person or had another connection, I shared that too.
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
Lisa Stringfellow:
First, don't rush to query. Both of the mentorships I participated in focus on writers who haven't queried extensively yet, so they can provide the most help.

Make sure your manuscript is polished and it's the best you can make it on your own. That includes having others critique or beta read your work and revising it at least a few times. Also, critique other people's work. You will improve your ability to see issues in your own work and build karma in your writing community. Those writer friends can support you during rejections and other tough times and they will cheer for you when you succeed!

Put aside your manuscript for some time before coming back to revision. Seeing your writing with fresh eyes after a lengthy break is invaluable. Write other things while you are taking a break from your manuscript.

Read, read, read. You should read extensively in the audience and genre you are writing for. It will help you find comps that you can mention in your query and also identify what is current in the marketplace. Most importantly, you can learn so much about writing craft by studying other writers. Read like a writer.
QT: Would you be willing to share your query with us?
Lisa Stringfellow:
Here is the body of my query letter (minus the personalized intro and bio sections).

Query Letter:

Dark Tide is a middle grade fantasy that is a twist on a traditional mermaid tale, rooted in Caribbean culture and folklore. It currently stands at 35,000 words. Oral storytelling elements blend with a setting similar to The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste and an atmosphere akin to Hoodoo by Ronald Smith.

12-year-old Kela never imagined "I hate you" would be her last words to her mother, and after her death, Kela would do anything to take it back. Powerless to change the past, she finds solace in jewelry-making and the sea. While scuba diving, Kela salvages a mysterious box containing a beautiful hair comb. When she touches it, a magical connection opens to a dangerous mermaid named Ophidia. The comb is Ophidia's soul, the immortal spark she took from a human long ago, and without it, she will dissolve into sea foam.

Bound by rules of magic, Ophidia offers Kela a wish in exchange for her comb's return. With only three days to return it, Kela accepts and wishes her mother back from the dead. At first, Kela is overjoyed to have her mother back, but worries as her mother sinks into depression, the consequence of being torn from the afterlife and her soul. But before Kela can help her mother or keep her end of the bargain with Ophidia, the comb is stolen. As time runs out, Kela struggles with the reality of her choices. She must find the thief so she can return the comb and keep her wish, or brave the mermaid's wrath and risk losing her mother again.