Success Story Interview - Sarah J Clift

An Interview with Sarah J Clift (SarahJClift on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent Maria Massie of Massie & McQuilkin Literary Agents.


QT: Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it?
Sarah J Clift:
UNDER THE MIDNIGHT SUN is a middle grade literary novel. The project name for it was “Alaskan Secret Garden.” A few things led me to writing it. First, my grandmother taught me how to garden, and I wanted to write something that featured a grandmother-granddaughter relationship with a garden as a setting. And who doesn’t love The Secret Garden? There aren’t too many Secret Garden retellings out there, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Then I learned about Barrow, Alaska, and its endless winter night and summer midnight sun, and I knew I had to set my retelling there.
QT: How long have you been writing?
Sarah J Clift:
I’ve always enjoyed writing, but I didn’t start writing with the intention to produce a novel until 2009. I didn’t get serious about it until the beginning of 2012 when I finally finished my first manuscript.
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
Sarah J Clift:
Since December 2012, so nine months.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
Sarah J Clift:
I had a great pitch (Alaskan Secret Garden! Who wouldn’t want it?!), so I got a lot of requests. But I also got a lot of rejections from those requests. That hurt. Especially since the feedback was not consistent. But I never reached the point where I thought I would give up. With each rejection that came back, I added to my list of possible things to revise.
QT: Is this your first book?
Sarah J Clift:
No. I wrote two manuscripts before this, both young adult. I queried my first one, but not my second one. So UTMS is my third, but second that I’ve queried.
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
Sarah J Clift:
Yes. I received my bachelor’s degree in writing.
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
Sarah J Clift:
Sometimes. When I’m drafting a manuscript, I do. When I wrote UTMS, I would put my baby down for a nap and settle on my bed with my laptop and my preschooler by my side, who would be watching something on TV and eating snacks. I forced myself to write 2,000 words a day, and that usually took me three hours.
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
Sarah J Clift:
Hard to say. Between one and two times? But I definitely read over it and tweaked it more times than that.
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
Sarah J Clift:
Definitely. They are so important in helping you pick out things that you as the writer can’t see.
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
Sarah J Clift:
I had a rough outline with character sketches. Some things changed as I drafted, but at least I knew where I was going.
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
Sarah J Clift:
I started querying UTMS at the end of April and received my first offer at the end of August, so four months. I queried my first manuscript for about six months before I shelved it.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
Sarah J Clift:
Twenty-eight. But most of my requests came through pitch contests and Twitter pitch parties.
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
Sarah J Clift:
I kept up with Publisher’s Marketplace to see what agents were selling contemporary/literary middle grade. Funny though because the agent I ended up signing with hasn’t sold a lot in the children’s department, but she specializes in literary fiction.
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
Sarah J Clift:
I did if I had some specific interaction with the agent or I had something not generic to say to them. Otherwise, I didn’t.
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
Sarah J Clift:
I think the best advice I can give other writers comes from the Katherine Neville quote I put at the top of my website: “Write. Remember, people may keep you (or me) from being a published author but no one can stop you from being a writer. All you have to do is write. And keep writing. While you’re working at a career, while you’re raising children, while you’re trout fishing--keep writing! No one can stop you but you.”

Query Letter:

Dear {Ms./Mr. Agent Extraordinaire}:

{Began with personalization, if any.}

In my literary middle grade novel UNDER THE MIDNIGHT SUN, Mary-Jane “MJ” Lennox is an eleven-year old Southern belle who rarely cries, even when her mother dies and her father is deployed to South Korea. After she’s sent to live with her grandmother on the icy tundra of Alaska, her father goes missing in action. She thinks her young life is over until she discovers an abandoned and forbidden greenhouse. And inside is a neglected garden full of hope.

With the help of her friend Nanook Tuktoo, MJ restores the dead garden to life as the Alaskan summer brings twenty-four hour light. She hopes the rejuvenating power of the garden will also help cure her young neighbor, Colin, of his cancer. But as the sun begins to set, the flowers slow their blooming, Colin worsens, and her father remains missing. Now she must find the strength to overcome her pain and learn that crying isn’t a sign of weakness, and hope can carry anyone through darkness.

Inspired by the Burnett classics The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, UNDER THE MIDNIGHT SUN is complete at 31,000 words. Set in the northernmost city in the U.S., it transports readers to Barrow, Alaska, and provides glimpses into Iñupiat Eskimo life.

I am an active member of SCBWI, and I received a bachelor of general studies degree in writing from Brigham Young University.

Thank you for considering UNDER THE MIDNIGHT SUN. {I pasted the first X pages (if agent guidelines ask for a sample)}, and I can send the full manuscript upon request.


Sarah J. Clift