Success Story Interview - Sandra Evans

An Interview with Sandra Evans (melior on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent Minju Chang of Bookstop Literary Agency.


QT: Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it?
Sandra Evans:
I’ve been writing novels for twenty years. In my early twenties I finished one based on my experiences as a writer/waitress living on Capitol Hill in Seattle the year Kurt Cobain died. I got a hold of a used copy of Writer’s Market and sent the manuscript to 20 publishers. I didn’t really research the process. One of them, Laura Hruska, sent back a notecard that started off with the sentence “You really can write!” She worked with me over a few months and a couple drafts trying to help me shape a story from the debris I’d given her. Everyone I knew who knew anything about books said that my novel was as good as published. Ultimately, Ms. Hruska passed on it. I was pretty devastated. A week later and I was on a flight for France, where I spent the year teaching English at the Université de Paul Valéry. When I got back to the U.S., I tried revising and sending out the earlier manuscript, and ended up with a mountain of rejections. So I focused on my academic career. But, that first notecard Ms. Hruska wrote me has been taped to the refrigerator of every kitchen I’ve cooked in since.

What made me go back to writing fiction was watching my field—medieval French literature—slowly disappear from university language programs. I wanted to find a way to keep these old stories alive, and I wanted to participate in the medieval process of writing—which is to take old stories and make them new. Both This is Not a Werewolf Story and my as-yet unpublished historical novel were inspired by those old stories I studied for so long. After writing my first scholarly articles and seeing them published in some of the top journals in my field, I became much more confident. And I realized that the magic formula to writing was—for me, at least—rewriting. Rewriting means that when I sit down to write, I recognize that 90% of my first draft will not appear in my final draft. When my temporary position at one university expired, I had trouble finding another job in the area where I wanted to live. During my 2 years of unemployment, I wrote four novels, found agents for two, and sold one. I found both of my agents through querytracker. Thank you. I always told myself that if I ever got published, I would be sure to do one of these interviews, just because the Success Stories I read on the site really kept me going.
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
Sandra Evans:
The first draft of This is Not a Werewolf Story took me 6 months to complete. By then I was in the habit of writing every day. I spent at least another year working with my agent Minju Chang and my editor at Simon & Schuster, Reka Simonsen, rewriting This is Not a Werewolf Story.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
Sandra Evans:
Well, I couldn’t give up. I had backed myself into a corner by including my 9 year old son in the process of writing This is Not a Werewolf Story. So I had him staring at me, big-eyed, watching to see how mommy handles failure. So even when my agent for my historical novel told me she didn’t want this story, I couldn’t give up on it. That was a tough place to be. She encouraged me to go ahead and look for another agent if I wanted. I wasn’t bitter or the least bit angry or even hurt—she had worked so hard trying to find a home for my other book. I had learned by that point that the only way an agent can hope to sell something is to love it herself. So I felt like she was doing me a service by stepping back from something she wasn’t 100% behind.

I decided that I needed to overhaul the entire story and ratchet up the action. Everyday I’d walk my son to school, go back home, piddle around with the dishwasher, get sucked in by the t.v., and then curse myself all the way up the stairs until I was back in my office, door shut, no internet connection. I let myself out to make more tea, and if my hands were blue (couldn’t justify heating the house when I was the only one in it) I’d go to the gym and do a boot camp class. The YMCA has been a major factor in my writing success. I think by getting physically strong I was able to become more mentally strong and even less willing to give up on myself.
QT: Is this your first book?
Sandra Evans:
This is Not a Werewolf Story is my first published book. Simon & Schuster’s Atheneum Books for Young Readers will release it on July 26, 2016.
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
Sandra Evans:
No, I guess not. I wrote a really long dissertation on the medieval French epic, and that was kind of like a writing class. As an undergraduate at the UW I took poetry classes from Jan Wallace and one from David Wagoner. The advice I got from the anonymous reviewers of my scholarly articles was invaluable. It toughened me up and made me really work to make sure the dots connected between my thoughts. One of them wrote to me, “Get control of your argument.” For some reason, I hear those words in my head a lot when I feel like giving up. It reminds me that the thread is there, I just have to find it again.
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
Sandra Evans:
Yes. I’m really pretty strict with myself. I’m a mom. I teach part-time. I do the vast majority of the housework and childcare. When it comes down to it, I’m the only one who really cares if I write or not, so I have to make it happen. I work early, go to the gym, eat lunch and write every day for two hours before I get my son from school. And then I get up early again and write 3 hours on weekend mornings. When I have a whole manuscript and most of the story is in place, I will sneak away and write whenever I can. At the same time, when I’m struggling through the last half of a first draft, all bets are off, and it’s a daily battle to get myself to sit in the chair and do the work.
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
Sandra Evans:
This book has been through so many major revisions. The first I did on my own, after my first agent passed on it. I picked up the pace and tried to make a very distinct voice for each character. The second revision I did with Minju and the other agents at Bookstop, and the third/fourth/fifth with Reka.
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
Sandra Evans:
No. I used to, when I was working on academic articles. What I found is that everyone is going to tell you something entirely different for the most part! They’ll focus on their little pet peeve or specialty. When it comes down to it, if I want total acceptance and enthusiasm, I read a passage to my son. If I want the hard truth, I put on my big girl pants and show it to my husband. He’s very honest.
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
Sandra Evans:
This part is such misery for me. Seriously. I just read another writer talk about how her novels come to her whole, in a matter of minutes, complete with plot, subplots, and characters. I would love that, but I think I’d have trouble actually writing it down if it came to me so fully digested. Writing is kind of a discovery for me. I was very quiet as a kid and I think writing was a way for me to figure out how I felt. Once I have an idea of my character and his/her struggles, then I just let the story go where it will. I tend to write straight through, about 80 pages, all the way to the end and then I go back and start over from the beginning and start making the front of the story match the back, since so much has happened that I had no idea would. Of course then the front end changes and the back end no longer works…
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
Sandra Evans:
This book was quick. I had an agent within about 9 months of first sitting down to write it. I knew right away that this was the one that would find a home—my first ten queries to my top choices got interest from four or five agents. At some point one of the agents who had requested the first 50 pages wrote back to say “I’m not taking any werewolf stories” and so that’s how I found the real title, because I stood up and said to the empty (messy) living room, “But this is NOT a werewolf story! Didn’t she read it?” Before that it was a different title altogether, but I didn’t want any more agents to ask to see pages and get my hopes up and then discover that they weren’t interested just because my character has some shape shifting tendencies. And it’s really clear in my story, the kid is not a werewolf.

For my historical novel, I queried about 80 before my first agent offered to represent it. I feel bad that she hasn’t been able to find a home for it. She’s a really lovely person and a truly great agent. I think that the last ten years, being what they have been, your odds are much better finding a home for a YA or MG book if you’re a first time author.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
Sandra Evans:
I think about 60.
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
Sandra Evans:
This time I was pretty careful at first. I selected only agents who had a track record of replying to unsolicited queries. I was sick of the silence. So my top twenty agents were all ones who reportedly said yes or no very quickly—within a month. I read the comments left by querytracker users really carefully. I’m not sure that Minju was in that first group—I think there might have been some comments that she took a long time to respond. Initially I only queried agents who did children’s literature exclusively. At some point I opened up and sent it out to more people—mainly because I had about 5 or 6 agents who had requested the manuscript and wanted me to contact them if I got an offer. I was trying to get just one of them to read the whole thing, make an offer, and get things moving. Minju was the first to do that. It was fun, after all these years, to have so many agents want it. But I loved Minju the minute I spoke with her (how can you not love an agent who did her thesis on Edith Wharton?) and it was the most surreal thing, after a life spent reading and teaching literature, to have someone talk to me about my story as if it were a book.
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
Sandra Evans:
I tried this on occasion, but honestly, I don’t think this is worth the time. It certainly didn’t matter to Minju or my other agent.
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
Sandra Evans:
If you love to write, then write. Worry about the agent after you have the story. Also, if you love to write then you should write—whether or not anyone ever wants to read what you’ve written. Spend the time of your life doing the things you love to do as often as you can do them.
QT: Would you be willing to share your query with us?
Sandra Evans:
I’m sharing this for one reason only, and that is to encourage other writers to just do their best and send it out. I don’t think there is anything I hate more than summarizing. I am someone who loves details, minutiae, and everything tangential. So this is definitely my way of hopefully showing people that even with a wordy query, you can get an agent interested. Don’t get so hung up on perfection that it’s the query letter that stops you from moving forward!

Query Letter:


For the first time in his life, 10 year old Raul Bisclavret is about to make a friend. And it couldn’t come at a better time, because things have started getting unusually strange in the White Deer Woods next to One of Our Kind Boarding School. Abandoned at the boarding school at the age of five, Raul is used to ‘weird’ since all his schoolmates tell him he is. He’s used to the marvelous, because what happens to him in the woods on Friday nights certainly qualifies. And he’s even used to the magical, because how else can you explain the talking white deer that has taught him how to change himself into a wolf every weekend? But now, the magic in the woods is threatened by the appearance of a new predator, one who seems to be stalking Raul and the precious secret that guards his long lost mother’s life.

Will the new kid Vincent be the one to help Raul? Or will Raul discover a terrible lesson—that talking and trusting can sometimes lead to lies and betrayal. And that when a friend treats you worse than an enemy, you’ll wish you’d never told him all of your secrets.

My middle grade novel, This is Not a Werewolf Story (48,000 words), tells the story of a boy who has to figure out how to save himself and his mother—first from a deranged gym teacher, next from an enraged cougar, and finally from his best friend, who tries to make Raul remain a wolf forever. Along the way, the lonely Raul learns how many people care about him—from his estranged father to his erudite classmate, the beautiful Mary Anne; from little Sparrow who looks up to him to the mystical bookworm Dean Swift, who knows more about everything than anyone realizes.

Geared towards boys like my own 9 year old son who needs fear and excitement as well as humor and emotion to stay engaged, my story was inspired by the ‘sympathetic werewolf’ stories of 12th century France that I researched while earning my doctorate in French literature at the University of Washington. Set against the magical backdrop of the island woodlands where I grew up, the story draws on myths from Celtic peoples as well as tribes native to the Pacific Northwest. My historical novel, **, is represented by ***. I have just begun querying This is Not a Werewolf Story, and two agents have requested the full manuscript. I’ve pasted the first three chapters below.

As you requested, I'm attaching a one-page synopsis and the first 50 pages.

Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.