Success Story Interview - P.J. McAvoy

An Interview with P.J. McAvoy (pjmcavoy on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent Kimberly Fernando of Olswanger Literary.


QT: Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it?
P.J. McAvoy:
My book is a murder mystery set in the early 1990’s in upstate New York. It’s about a former police detective who quit the department to escape its toxic culture and gaslighting, taking a job as a cemetery supervisor. She gets involved with a stalled murder investigation and things start going off the rails. It’s definitely a ‘grey’ mystery - not gruesome and gratuitous, but also not bubbly and cozy. Fans of shows like Wallander, Shetland, Endeavor, and Broadchurch that are equal parts compelling character arcs and knotty mysteries, with ratcheting suspense and satisfying endings will enjoy it. If you looked forward to PBS Mystery on Sunday night, and got excited when you saw those opening Edward Gorey cartoons, this book is for you.

I’m a big fan of writers Val McDermid, Colin Dexter, and Michael Connelly and wanted to write something that could hold up to their standards. I wanted to write a private detective who was different from the trope of a hard drinking P.I. who didn’t have any qualms lying or breaking rules to get to the truth – I thought it would be interesting to write someone who was very principled and had a strong sense of integrity that wouldn’t let her do something she thought was wrong, even if it would get a good result. Someone who was very black and white in her approach that I could put in these really difficult situations and see how she would deal with it. That’s how Sam (my main character) came about.
QT: How long have you been writing?
P.J. McAvoy:
I’ve worked in public relations and corporate communications for 20 years, and writing has always been a big part of my full-time job. On the side, I’ve been a freelance writer for about 17 years, writing human interest stories for magazines throughout the country. This is my first fiction novel.
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
P.J. McAvoy:
Two years.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
P.J. McAvoy:
Yes! The querying and writing process is challenging because you don’t get much feedback on what isn’t working, or what could be improved. I did a lot of research into the process and knew it takes a long time for most authors to find an agent. My confidence flagged at times. I ended up taking a three month break from querying to rework my manuscript, and because the rejections were getting me down. I needed the break, and it served me well. Pausing querying isn’t quitting! Trying to take the long view kept me on course, as well as positive feedback from beta readers and my critique partner.
QT: Is this your first book?
P.J. McAvoy:
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
P.J. McAvoy:
No. I have a shelf full of craft books on plotting, characterization, and story structure. I was able to take a few things from each one. That was helpful. I worked with a developmental editor on an early draft who gave me great direction on what to improve through her edit letter.
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
P.J. McAvoy:
I did when I was drafting and heavily editing, as I have a full-time job, a side gig as a freelancer, and young kids. I would spend time during the week adding details to my outline and the scenes, and then on the weekend I would try to write two chapters. Having the full roadmap of the outline helped me stay focused on the scene in front of me when I was writing. I think that made my writing time more efficient.
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
P.J. McAvoy:
Seven drafts so far! Writing is re-writing J I wouldn’t edit as I went, I did the full draft and then went back through. Each time I got feedback from a beta reader or critique partner I would see what I could incorporate. The story went through some major changes between the first draft and the latest one.
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
P.J. McAvoy:
Yes, and they were very helpful, both for suggestions and in boosting my confidence by pointing out what they liked and what was working well.
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
P.J. McAvoy:
I used a very detailed outline on a spreadsheet to track my story beats and the main plot and several sub-plots. As I was writing a mystery, I also built an outline of what happened that my main character slowly uncovered, and what the villain was doing in the background to throw her off the case. I am 100% a plotter and could not imagine ‘pantsing’ a novel – but huge credit to those who can write that way and make it work!
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
P.J. McAvoy:
Nine months from the start of querying until when I got my offer.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
P.J. McAvoy:
Eighty eight! I cast a wide net and racked up a lot of rejections. My request rate was around 5% until I had my offer, and then I got a few more full requests when I sent my ‘nudge’ that bumped me to a 8% rate. There is a ton of competition in the slush piles so don’t think that a lower request rate is a negative reflection. Like the adage says, it only takes one Yes, and it took me 76 queries to get to my yes.
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
P.J. McAvoy:
I looked for agents who were seeking adult mysteries or thrillers, and a few who were requesting general or commercial fiction. The QT subscription was extremely helpful because I could see what each agent had actually been requesting (and compare with what was on their MSWL’s, which didn’t always match! Someone may say they want several different genres but the QT data can show they’re only really requesting fulls in one or two lanes). That helped me narrow my list and made my later queries more targeted.
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
P.J. McAvoy:
Not really, but I went through 35 different drafts of my query letter. These were not tiny changes between the drafts. I kept refining and refining. By the end I was so much happier with it. The last version made my first few batches of queries seem embarrassingly amateur by comparison. Out of my 88 queries and starting with #1, the agents who requested were: #25, 54, 56, 63, 77, 78, and 87. So my later query letters were hitting the target more than my first rounds. I feel like if I ever had to query again I’d be much better at building a package that could get attention. I would highly encourage writers to perfect their letter before sending that first query.
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
P.J. McAvoy:
Querying is a skill that is completely different from novel writing! It took me a long time to learn how to pitch well. Check out the resources that are out there to help querying authors: The S**t no one tells you about writing podcast, the pubtips reddit, and your beta readers. Run your query letter and first pages by people for feedback. The TSNOTYAW podcast has agents who dissect query pitches. That was super helpful in getting me to think like an agent and distill what made my novel unique.

Final piece of advice is to keep at it – you only lose when you quit. Even if one book isn’t getting bites, you can put it aside, write something else, and query that. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.