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Introducing a new writing tool from the maker of QueryTracker. Learn More...

Success Story Interview - Nina Simon

An Interview with Nina Simon (ninakswrites on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent Stefanie Lieberman of Janklow & Nesbit Associates.


QT: Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it?
Nina Simon:
The Life Jacket is a traditional murder mystery that takes place on the central coast of California, featuring amateur sleuth Lana Rubicon. When her granddaughter finds a dead body in a river, Lana, a hard-charging businesswoman with cancer, finds new purpose protecting the family she'd taken for granted for years.

I started writing this book because of a family crisis. Last summer, my mom was diagnosed with advanced cancer. I quit my job to support her. To avoid talking about death and chemo, we started imagining a mystery together. A murder mystery with a character like her as the detective - a fierce, smart, older businesswoman. It was fun and gave us something to talk about that wasn't cancer. After weeks of chatting about imagined characters and crimes, I started trying to write them into a book. Something that started as a way for us to cope with my mom's illness became a creative project and a new writing direction for me.
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
Nina Simon:
I wrote the first full draft over a six month period. Then, I did a self-edit, engaged beta readers, and did a third comprehensive edit before starting to query.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
Nina Simon:
I never felt like giving up, but my motivation for writing the book changed. At first, the whole goal was to grow closer to my mother. I had no idea if it would be a book or just a fun relationship-building project. But once I started really writing in earnest, I got more and more into it. It shifted from being about me and my mom to being about finishing the book and making it as strong as it could be.
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
Nina Simon:
No. I've always learned by doing. As a college student, I was a slam poet who self-published two chapbooks. Later, as a young museum exhibit designer, I started a professional blog about changes in the museum industry. I posted 1-3x per week for 13 years. During that period, I self-published two nonfiction books targeted to professionals in the cultural nonprofit world. Throughout that time, I kept trying to improve by reading books about writing. One of my favorites is Steering the Craft by Ursula LeGuin, which features some great writing exercises.
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
Nina Simon:
Yes, I love working with beta readers (and had done so previously for my self-published nonfiction). I worked with 15 beta readers in total over two drafts. About half of them were people I knew personally and respected, and the other half were people I met in online groups coordinated by WFWA and Sisters in Crime.
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
Nina Simon:
I was lucky. I queried for a month for this book. I received five offers and felt Stefanie could be the best partner to me in getting this book into the world.
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
Nina Simon:
At first, I queried agents who were fast responders. I wanted to get some feedback - any feedback - to get a sense of whether I was doing it "right." I used the QueryTracker statistics to select agents who repped in my genre and were likely to get back to me in a few days. I knew I couldn't handle months of waiting. I also wanted some fast "no"s to help me get used to the blow of rejection.

In the first week of querying, I got two full requests. That emboldened me to query more strategically. I used a combination of QueryTracker, agents' own sites, and Publishers Marketplace to make a spreadsheet of agents who repped in my genre, had interests that overlapped with my book, AND had sold projects in my genre. Ultimately I queried 35 agents and received 12 full requests and 5 offers of representation.
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
Nina Simon:
Barely. At first, I tried to do this, but then it felt a bit contrived and presumptuous to me. If I'd done my research and written a good query letter, what was the use in telling the agent I think they'll like it because of X? Ten out of twelve of my full requests came from queries with no customization.
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
Nina Simon:
Three things:

1. Find agents who want what you are writing. Don't twist yourself in knots to "prove" your manuscript would be a fit for them. You wouldn't try to sell a steak to a vegetarian--don't try to sell your manuscript to someone who is unlikely to fall in love with it. Similarly, I felt that agents who were more responsive to queries might also be more open to new authors than those who take months to respond.

2. Consider paying for QueryTracker Premium and Publisher's Marketplace. QueryTracker Premium was so helpful for me in identifying agents who were fast responders. I loved tracking their response timelines. I only bought one month of Publisher's Marketplace and it was so valuable in helping me separate agents who talked a good game from those who could sell.

3. If you get an offer, think before you take it. Everyone says "you only need one," and while that's true, the first offer I received was from an agent I just didn't click with. I was in a fortunate position to have multiple offers, and I'm really glad that gave me the opportunity to talk to different agents who work and think differently. Talking to them, and in a few cases, authors they represent, helped me make a decision to build a business relationship that I am really excited about.

Query Letter:


Nothing brings a family together like a murder next door.

Lana Rubicon (62), a hard-charging LA businesswoman, is stuck in her daughter Meg's dumpy house by a river, counting otters and hoping boredom won't kill her before the cancer does. Then, Lana's teen granddaughter Jack paddles into a dead naturalist floating in the river. A neighboring rancher—a patient of Meg's—dies the next day.

Jack becomes a suspect. Meg is a mother on edge. Meg wants Lana to stay in bed, but Lana has bigger ambitions: to pull on her wig, find the true murderer, protect her family, and prove she still has power.

Lana uses her big-city chutzpah to confront suave environmentalists, skirt-chasing kayakers, illegal pot growers, and high-society matrons. With Jack's help--and despite Meg's warnings--Lana uncovers a web of lies and violent feuds over who owns land, how it's used, and how many acres are worth killing for.

THE LIFE JACKET (85,000 words) is a mystery that blends the humor of The Thursday Murder Club, the small-town atmosphere of Louise Penny's Three Pines, and the female family dynamics of the Gilmore Girls. This debut novel is a standalone with series potential.

I am a former museum director and the author of two self-published nonfiction books, The Participatory Museum and The Art of Relevance, each of which has sold over 20,000 copies. I have given two TedX talks, keynoted over 300 conferences, and have 25,000 followers on Twitter. I've written mixed-media mystery games on contract for CSI:NY and the International Spy Museum. When not writing, I love to cook, hike, and paddleboard in the Monterey Bay.

Thank you for your consideration,

Nina Simon