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Success Story Interview - Shawn McDonald

An Interview with Shawn McDonald (shawnmcdonald on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent Fiona Kenshole of Transatlantic 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?
Shawn McDonald:
Sure. But before we get started let me say how nice it is to finally meet you, Patrick. But really, dude. You didn’t have to wear a tie.

The “inspiration” question is a bit complicated. I’ll try to be as concise as I can.

I’m a Technical Writer for the Network Security division of a telecom. When I was hired on, my boss’s directive to me was, “Shawn, know the enemy. Go to the places Anonymous and the hactivists hang out and learn the way they think.”

So I waded into the primordial ooze of imageboards and the “Dark Net.” And man, I was shocked. Absolutely shocked by how simultaneously clever those kids are, and by how viscous they are. The whole subculture. I was half-watching an imageboard tumble one night while the TV was on, when I saw a post celebrating the suicide of Amanda Todd. Curious, I googled “Amada Todd” and ended up watching the nine minute video she posted on YouTube, explaining how her life went wrong. Essentially, it all started with a single photo. As the father of two daughters, Amanda’s story haunted me.

Flash forward a couple of years. I had just finished a novel and was completely void of a single idea to start a new one. My 12 year old daughter was walking through the kitchen with her friend and they walked by my smartphone in the charging cradle. My daughter dramatically shouted out “Selfies!” and picked up my phone. The two kids started vamping selfie poses and duckfaces and snapping pictures. This was April of 2013. I’d seen thousands of selfies on imageboards, but I’d never heard the word before. The word “selfie” was still nine months away from becoming Word of the Year; the “plague word” it has become.

While I was watching my daughter and her friend, I thought about Amanda Todd and I had that moment of paternal worry, thinking about how easily a person’s reputation can turn on one stupid photo in the digital age. How a good kid can just be having fun and suddenly become the butt of a world-wide meme. For example, Blake Boston.
Ding. The light bulb went off over my head. I had a story. Selfie.
QT: How long have you been writing?
Shawn McDonald:
Since second grade, really. I wrote my first full-length novel during my final year of college. Whew, it was a stinker. But, yaknow… Like they say. You gotta write a bad one before you can write a good one. Little did I know how many “bad ones” I’d write before I finally wrote a novel I was proud of.
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
Shawn McDonald:
Heh. Heh. Honestly, I took a screencap of my desktop as I created a project file folder on the USB drive where I keep my novels. The age of Facebook, right? Oversharing? That was April 16, 2013.

I also took a selfie of me lighting my traditional “completed novel” celebration cigar and posted it on Facebook. When I went back and did the math, I was stunned that it only took me six and a half weeks to write the first draft of Selfie.

Then again, I recycled the setting from one old novella I’d written, and a big chunk of characters from another novella. So I had a lot of the building blocks available to shape into something fresh and new.
QT: Is this your first book?
Shawn McDonald:
Selfie is novel number eight. I had representation for novel number four, but that went nowhere.
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
Shawn McDonald:
Sigh. That’s a tricky question. Technically yes. I went back and got a second Master’s degree followed by some acronym-letters-that-shall-not-be-mentioned. It was dumb. I don’t know why I did it. I guess I thought I’d run into famous authors with publishing connections who would help me. That didn’t happen. All I did was waste a lot of money.

Saying that tends to upset other people who have those same acronym-letters-that-shall-not-be-mentioned postscripted after their name on business cards. For some reason, those letters get kind of political.

So I won’t disparage those who take that path. I’m just saying, it was a colossal waste of money for me and I didn’t learn squat. Everybody else in my track was trying to finish their first novel. I was already on my fifth novel by that time.

For what it’s worth.
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
Shawn McDonald:
Naw. I just push out a baby.

Unfortunately, I keep buying defective USB drives. It’s like, if I don’t plug them in to the laptop and boot the Word file of my WiP, no new story ever just appears on its own. Very frustrating. So I keep plugging in the USB, opening the Word file, and wiggling my fingers. That’s as close to a routine as I have.
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
Shawn McDonald:
Eight major rewrites.
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
Shawn McDonald:
Thank God, yes! My Beautiful Wife is a very honest beta reader. Sometimes too honest, but that’s another story. I had a crew of my Facebook friends who waded in and kicked the crap out of my first five-or-so drafts. Some beta readers were better betas than others, but they all contributed something that made it a better story.
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
Shawn McDonald:

I freeform the protagonist toward as intractable of a problem as I can. I write until I have no clue how the protag can extract themselves from the mess I put them in.
Then I take a week or however long it takes to tumble out resolution scenarios. Those I plot.

Freeform into chaos. Plot my way out.

Of course, the extraction from intractability usually requires me to go back and hide a few escape tools in the first act.

Technically, my style is “Pants-Plot-Plant.” Say that three times fast.
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
Shawn McDonald:
Hmmm. Let me check my notes. My first query went out on August 1. So that puts the count at what? Four and a half months?
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
Shawn McDonald:
Ha! I knew you’d ask that. I sent out 146 total queries. My first offer of representation came from Query Number Ninety Two. The second offer was number One Hundred Forty-One.
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
Shawn McDonald:
A pulse. I absolutely refused to query any agent who was undead or didn’t have a pulse.

Okay, okay. Don’t look at me like that Patrick. First, after using QueryTracker to submit four other novels, it was easy to churn up a list of every agent who has ever asked me for a full or a partial. That seemed like a good place to start.

Any time a new agent popped up in my notifications, I immediately queried them as well. I assumed newbie agents would be more likely to want to read pages and get their client list going. That’s the reason I queried Ms. Kenshole. She’s not a newbie to the industry, but she had just moved to a new agency.
Bingo. I got my pages in front of her while the reading stack was short. You can’t get signed if you don’t get read.
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
Shawn McDonald:
My hand on my kid’s head, I swear to you that I never sent a single query without making an attempt to research the agent.

If there was some point-of-differentiation for the agent that I thought was especially suited for my ms, I didn’t hesitate to wedge that angle into the opening paragraph.
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
Shawn McDonald:
Er. Uh.

I balk. I balk because after you’ve been at the query game for two or three novels, you are already sick of all the craptastic clichés.

“Just keep trying!”

“All it takes is one yes!”

Yeah, yeah. Go outside and practice falling down, Little Miss Sunshine.

But I tell you what. I accidentally stumbled across an author blog the other day. I’m blanking at the moment on the author’s name because she was three links removed from wherever I had started. The author wrote something that made my ears burn. This is a close paraphrase, but she wrote, “STOP WITH THE DREAM AGENT STUFF, WRITERS!”

It stunned me. Stop with the dream agent? Why? Why would I… Oh yeah. She’s right.

That’s like me getting seriously hung up on Scarlett Johansson to the point where I’m going to be disappointed if I don’t actually MARRY SCARLETT JOHANSSON.

R eally? Reeeeeally? Yes, Scarlett Johansson is an exaggerated example, but not by much. Keep your mind open to a relationship with an agent who digs you for who you are. That’s when the chemistry happens.

Two percent of authors will ever find agent representation. Those are long odds. Long goddamn odds, my friend. Only a quarter of those who are fortunate enough to sign with an agent will see their book published. That is such a frickin’ moonshot. If you can get there, don’t lose a moment of sleep over all the ways you didn’t get there.
Stop with the “Dream Agent,” business.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t aim high. I’ve had a terrible agent. Trust me I understand. I understand that some agents are better than others. More connected than others. Aim high.

But don’t waste good single-malt Scotch on a rejection from your “Dream Agent.” Find your match with the agent who is going to love you back, and then don’t screw it up.
QT: Would you be willing to share your query with us?
Shawn McDonald:

Sorry. It’s just that after the hundreds of successful query letters I’ve read on agent blogs and even here in the QT Success Stories section, there have been perhaps five where I said, “Yeah! I’d like to read THAT book!”

Hundreds of times my reaction has been, “Really? You asked for pages on that query? Really?”

So sure. I’ll share my query, but I do so knowing that a metric ton of QTers will be thinking the same thing about my query. And YES, I know. This query is way too long.

Waaaaay too long.

Also, I should mention that I asked my agent what she liked about my query letter. She said, “Oh luv, [she’s British] we don’t even read the query letters, we just skip to the sample pages. We only look up at the query to pull out your contact information.”

So… There you go. I’m always a bit suspicious of agents who want no sample pages. Why are they even accepting queries? What are they looking for? High concept plots and established clients? How can you NOT want sample pages? Bah.

What were we talking about? Oh! My too-long query letter:

Query Letter:

Dear Ms. Kenshole,

Sometimes a girl can do everything right and her reputation still goes down the toilet.

Shy Lacey Faruzzi can’t seem to break into the social scene of her new school in Conoyerville, Texas. First, her dream guy turns out to be a racist jerk. Then she loses a potential boyfriend because she won’t sext with him. Sophomore superhunk Brody Faust seems interested, but he already has a girlfriend, queen bee Holly Laphart.

Then a stolen selfie photo of Lacey trying on swimsuits in a department store dressing room gets passed around the high school and posted to the Lone Star Yearbook Project website. LSYP is where local boys share pictures of their conquests and nude selfies of the local girls. Lacey’s compromising photo goes viral to imageboards around the world. Suddenly there are plenty of boys interested in her, but for the wrong reason. Holly Laphart doesn’t appreciate competing with Lacey’s infamy and devotes herself to making Lacey’s school hours a living hell. The blackmailing scum behind Lone Star Yearbook promises to ruin her life outside the halls of Conoyerville High if Lacey can’t outsmart him.

The night Jimmy Kimmel spoofs her meme on late night television, Lacey finally understands that no matter how many times her mother relocates for a job, she will never be the anonymous newgirl again.

It isn't until Lacey’s BFF, Peri, finally convinces Lacey to join her girl band that Lacey finds her tribe and learns to own her mistakes.

Hotheaded young Neal Bartholomew was once smitten with Lacey, but now he has troubles of his own. After an expulsion from the public high school, Neal finds an uneasy redemption among the swells at a Catholic prep school his parents can barely afford. The Dean of Students finds pornography on Neal’s school-issued laptop and his penance is to be assigned as a Research Assistant to the school Ethics teacher, Mr. Forcas. Neal and Mr. Forcas team up to take down the mysterious hacker and skin merchant behind Lone Star Yearbook Project who is destroying the lives and reputations of girls like Lacey Faruzzi.

Neal’s perspective on the harmlessness of photo sharing sites evolves as he investigates the very real backstories of the pixelated young ladies he once objectified. If Neal only knew how close Lacey Faruzzi was to ruin, maybe he would put the clues together a little faster.

Selfie is an edgy YA procedural for smarties, chronicling the perils of a smart girl making one dumb mistake in the digital age; complete at 89,000 words.

BIO: I am a professional Technical Writer for the Security division of a telecom. Selfie is the product of two years of research into the Dark Net and the primordial ooze of teenage imageboard sites and meme culture. Selfie was inspired by my work with the FBI and Law Enforcement Agents tracking down internet creeps. My novella, Ms. Tiegli's Most Welcome Visitors, was a shortlist finalist for the prestigious 2007 Miami University Press Novella Contest. I was previously represented by XXXXXX of XXXXXXXXX.

Ms. XXXXX is no longer agenting, but I’m still writing. Until they find a cure, I’m still writing.

Shawn McDonald