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Success Story Interview - Marten Norr

An Interview with Marten Norr (MartenNorr on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent Maeve MacLysaght of Copps 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?
Marten Norr:
This novel is a science-fantasy, but also kind of an alternate history, and also kind of just New Weird. It takes place during a conflict based heavily on World War 1 and follows a squad of fighter pilots as they realize that their government intends to unleash a reality-bending weapon. The book has been described as “the movie 1917, but with magic and dinosaurs, and the queer isn’t subtext.”
Originally, I was inspired to write this story after a visit to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC. Oddly enough, when I first started writing, the world was inspired by an alternate Second World War. It remained that way until the draft that I began in 2021, when I switched to WW1. I think this was a result of my college practicum; in my last term as a senior, I researched and studied a series of four autograph books from the Great War era and discovered that I found the culture and events fascinating (you can find my research here: Placing a fantasy story in such a setting felt like a perfect way to blend my passion for historical research with my love of worldbuilding and storytelling—as well as a relevant medium through which I might explore and try to reconcile my anti-war sentiments with my interest in military-adjacent public history.
I also just love writing about messy queers, and the main character of this novel is as messy as it gets.
QT: How long have you been writing?
Marten Norr:
Literally? Since I had a firm enough grasp on language. Technically, though, I’ve been writing with an intent to publish since around 6th grade (unlikely as that might have been). As a product of the 90s I still have most of my old writing at hand, whether saved on an ancient hard-drive of my own volition or stashed in one of my parents’ plastic tote bin of “keepsakes” against my will. Sometimes, if I’m feeling especially brave, I seek it out, which is always a wild time. It’s deeply humbling, but it also encourages me to see how far I’ve come and how much my craft has improved.
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
Marten Norr:
Since February 16, 2013. That was the first time I drew the MC (usually, I get ideas for characters first and then build the story around them—and if I can’t sketch them immediately, I take it as a sign that they need workshopping). This is the longest period of time I’ve spent on any given project, though; usually I’ll take a project from development to full draft in a year or so, and spend the next year revising. The fact that this novel stayed with me for a decade as one of my main projects is, I think, a good sign.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
Marten Norr:
I shelved this book for about three years, actually, in 2017, somewhere around draft 5. I’d started a couple of other projects that were holding my attention more reliably. I always knew I’d come back to this one eventually, but it needed a lot of revisions. However, I also knew that it wasn’t going anywhere and I could come back to it when the time was right.

As for querying, I was actually just about to shelve this manuscript the same week I received an offer of representation! I’m so glad I didn’t.
QT: Is this your first book?
Marten Norr:
Not by a long shot! Remember how I said I started writing in 6th grade? My first “book” was actually a 9-book dystopian family saga, which I submitted to publishers without an agent, 100% certain it was going to be the next great American novel. I did get one full request, though I never heard from that editor again. Cannot blame them. Hope they’re doing okay and that they didn’t die cringing.

I have a list of all my various projects over the years and there are…many. Of those, maybe 15 have seen more than a first draft, and only perhaps 5 are ones I’d consider revising and pitching.
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
Marten Norr:
I took a few writing courses in college and almost declared as a creative writing major, but ultimately went with history. Other than that, the only ‘training’ I had was an after-school workshop for high-schoolers, which mainly consisted of us eating snacks and writing melodramatic poetry.
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
Marten Norr:
Despite earnest attempts, I’ve never been able to keep a schedule or any kind of defined routine. I write if and when the muse strikes, and I am beholden to it. However, I do try to write even when I’m not feeling particularly inspired. You can’t edit an empty page.
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
Marten Norr:
The manuscript that got me an offer of representation was draft 7, though not a lot changed structurally between drafts 3-5. When I started 6, though, I gutted nearly everything and reworked the plot, world, and some of the characters.
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
Marten Norr:
Yes, as many as possible. I’m lucky enough to be in a few wonderful writing servers on Discord, where we exchange critiques on each others’ projects; several of the authors in said servers are published (either self-published or traditionally) and having their support and feedback was invaluable. I’m also fortunate that I have a couple of friends who have read all the drafts in their varying levels of comprehensibility and who could therefore tell me when they liked the changes I was making between iterations. The reason I wanted to have as many (quality, reliable) beta readers as possible was because for me it was a method not only of improving the prose and plot, but of gathering data. Although there was some feedback I didn’t agree with at first, if multiple beta readers made note of the same issue I knew I had to examine it more closely to see why it wasn’t working.
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
Marten Norr:
For draft 1, I flew (pun intended) entirely by the seat of my pants. I kept notes so I could remember important worldbuilding details and character info, but the plot went straight from my brain and into the document. I think I started outlining somewhere around draft 3, when I altered the plot a little and realized that there were many glaring inconsistencies and continuity holes. Since then, my method has typically been to create a fairly loose scene-by-scene outline which I edit as I go along.
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
Marten Norr:
I queried this book for about 7 months. Previously (in, I think, 2009 or 2010) I’d queried a YA sci-fi novel for 3 or 4 months to indie presses before shelving the project. Before that, I queried the odious 9-book series I wrote between 6th and 8th grade for 2 or 3 months (it felt a lot longer) before shelving it. The market and querying process changed a lot between those projects and this current one; back then we were still using these things called envelopes. I much prefer QueryTracker.

…This has made me remember that I still have the query letters for those two older projects. Dare I plumb the depths of my childhood email address and see if they held any water?

Update: the rest of this interview was completed by my ghost, because I perished.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
Marten Norr:
Just under 60.
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
Marten Norr:
For the most part, I needed to know that the potential agents represented not only SFF, but LGBTQIA+ fiction and topics as well; it was important to me that they were as passionate as I am about inclusion, especially within the sci-fi and fantasy genres. I also checked out other authors and projects they represented to see how my book might fit in with the rest of their list. Additionally, I looked at agents’ MSWLs—if they had them—or at their bios/websites to find what tropes, concepts, and sub-genres they might be interested in.
This all resulted in my list being quite a bit shorter than I’d expected, in part because many of the agents who would have otherwise made a great fit for another one of my projects often listed ‘military fiction’ or ‘books with military officers as narrators’ in their Do Not Query section. This is an extremely valid and understandable choice, and I didn’t feel comfortable querying them with my manuscript, even with a note in the query letter about how it was anti-war, abolitionist, and anti-imperialist.
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
Marten Norr:
I did; in the introductory paragraph I included a sentence that went something like: “I am querying you because of your interest in [personalized tidbit].” From there I would replace the bracketed part with specific details from their MSWL or bio, such as “unique setting” or “second chance romance,” etc.
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
Marten Norr:
You will get very discouraged. You will feel like an impostor, no matter how certain you are that your book is ready for querying. It will be more grueling and more time-consuming than you expected, even though everyone tells you it’s grueling and time-consuming. But, if your manuscript and query letter are as polished as possible, then you’ve done what you can do and the rest is out of your hands. All you can do now is sit back, wait, maybe work on other projects. Make sure to get as much feedback as you can on both your story and your letter, and listen to your critique partners—and absolutely do not query a first draft. Be gracious and happy for your friends when they get offers of rep, even if it’s before you do. Rejections can feel extremely personal, especially if they’re from agents you really vibe with, but they’re not. Try to let them roll off your shoulders. If this manuscript doesn’t get an offer, you have more stories in you and you can try again with another project.

Also: don’t harass agents. Please. That’s just gross behavior. Send the query and then step back.

Also also: for the love of all that is holy make a color-coded spreadsheet, especially for agents that don’t use QueryManager (but ideally for all the agents you plan to query). You will want to have all of the contact information, links to submission guidelines and MSWL, response times, and notes easily accessible, as well as a column for the date you queried each of them so that you can discern how long your query has been out in the world (in case you want to nudge or mark it as rejected). Unless you have an eidetic memory, this spreadsheet will be indispensable.

Query Letter:

Dear [Agent],
It is my pleasure to present my adult science fantasy novel, OATH AND ENTROPY, which is complete at 110,000 words. I am submitting to you because you [personalized tidbit about agent/publisher]. OATH AND ENTROPY is a queer deconstruction of military and imperialist SFF, perfect for fans of Claire North’s urgent, pertinent character arcs and China Miéville’s vibrant, offbeat worldbuilding. Told from multiple POVs, the novel delves into the complicated bonds that hold people together in a system that’s collapsing around them.
Shevlin Axton, the most celebrated ace pilot of the Imperium, was never a saint. His self-serving conduct cost him his squad when he led his troops into a fight they couldn’t win, and his hubris nearly cost him his life. Given one last chance to prove himself more than a reckless liability, Shevlin takes his new troops and moves to investigate the site of an enemy attack where impossible weaponry and unknown magics destroyed a field hospital near the front-line trench. But instead of captured prisoners and a new accolade for his resume, he finds a war crime, a journalist who knew too much, and a reason to start breaking rules.
Forced to reconsider whether his loyalties lie with his squad or with the government that betrayed him, Shev realizes that he must commit to his rebellious tendencies or find himself implicated in the conspiracy. He goes rogue with the few people still willing to follow him: his partner, his old flame, and an eager-to-please rookie. All three of them are certain that if anyone can end this war, it’s him—but he’s not the self-assured ace he used to be, and they’ve all heard the rumors that the gods curse anyone who flies with him. Determined to navigate the landscape of dissent in which they’ve found themselves, they reckon with the possibility that exposing the Imperium’s war crimes might mean losing the war. But when the squad discovers that not even the god of death is willing to abide the Imperium’s next course of action, they must collaborate with the enemy to prevent untold casualties on both sides. Diametrically opposed in every way, Shev’s squad and their erstwhile co-conspirators race against time to combine the Imperium’s gem tech with the enemy’s plant magic and put an end to the atrocities.
There’s just one doubt in Shev’s mind: if he leads his friends into danger again, will it be worth it? When every truth comes to light, will anything he loves be left standing?
I am a career historian specializing in WWI-era culture. My research into how the First World War shaped society informed this novel, as did my experiences as a young trans man in our current society.
Thank you for your consideration and I look forward to hearing from you!

Marten Norr