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Success Story Interview - S.R. Spieler

An Interview with S.R. Spieler (spieles on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent Antoinette Van Sluytman of Looking Glass Literary & Media.

06/10/2024

QT: Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it?
S.R. Spieler:
My epic femme fantasy is the Catalog of the Gods, set in a secondary world with twelve continents where the gods demand sacrifices of art in exchange for miracles. I wanted to write in an upmarket lyrical style like Circe by Madeleine Miller but with a hard magic system and explosive ending like Brandon Sanderson’s books. My first inspiration was the image of a doomed woman sacrificing art to a god on a precipice—except to her shock, the sacrifice miraculously transforms the landscape painting into a portal she can jump through.
QT: How long have you been writing?
S.R. Spieler:
Since 2008.
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
S.R. Spieler:
I queried a dystopian novel in 2018 with a good request rate (I received 10 requests for partials or fulls), but I didn’t receive any offers. My manuscript wasn’t ready. Therefore, when I started this novel in 2019, I was determined that I wasn’t going to submit until it was ready.
QT: Is this your first book?
S.R. Spieler:
My fourth.
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
S.R. Spieler:
I’ve attended workshops like Futurescapes and Viable Paradise.
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
S.R. Spieler:
I have to work with my ADHD, so when I’m motivated, I can write quickly, and it’s joyful, but when the motivation dies, I have to scrounge up hacks, especially in the second half of the middle. Specifically, I assign myself the next concrete task, whether that’s “describe the room” or “write down ten ideas for escape.” A lot of my steady progress happens when I print out my current chapter and hand-write during my commute into midtown Manhattan on the subway. I type up my ideas at lunch and expand.
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
S.R. Spieler:
I went through five rounds of revision, the first over the course of 2-3 years with my writing group (I think they benevolently read over 250,000 words of drafts and redrafts as I found my way) and then betas.
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
S.R. Spieler:
It takes a village! I sourced or did swaps to get fifteen amazing betas from Critters, Absolute Write, and Fiverr as well as from my workshop friends from Futurescapes and Viable Paradise. Getting fresh eyes as I cut this draft down to size was everything.
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
S.R. Spieler:
I outlined the initial arcs for my two main characters. I really loved how in The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood, there’s a killer first act with a full mini plot that concludes with a gut punch; it’s the launchpad for the rest of the novel. I wanted to do that with both of my characters and have them launch toward each other to solve the novel’s main conflict with the evil cult. Once I had those arcs down, I outlined the rest—but diverged from my outline often and wildly. I finished just after Nanowrimo in 2022 with a staggering 193k word count. I knew that wasn't going to sell. I didn’t reverse-outline like some people do with larger manuscripts but ended up cutting a major plot thread that everyone agreed wasn’t working. Then I rewrote the last quarter. That got me down to 155k and sent it off to betas. With their advice, I cut another plot thread and reworked other sections of the novel and so on. For the last 11k, I cut every filler word and any snag of repetition until it was 119k.
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
S.R. Spieler:
I queried Catalog of the Gods for about six months, since just after Christmas 2023. Antoinëtte Van Sluytman, my agent, offered in late May.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
S.R. Spieler:
66
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
S.R. Spieler:
They repped epic fantasy at my word count.
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
S.R. Spieler:
A LOT but I’ll try and narrow it:

First, it’s never a question of “why should I query an agent,” it’s “why not?”

Second, querying is so hard. You have to be both self-forgiving but persistent. Seek out brutally honest critique (the folks at AbsoluteWrite’s Query Letter Hell forum went through six? seven? rounds with me). This is even more important if you’re book doesn’t lend itself to a clever hook. Even still, it doesn’t matter how good your query and first pages are if your manuscript isn’t ready. Make sure you understand character arcs and that your novel isn’t just a series of events but deeply intentional in its themes.

Third, find both beta readers that are your core audience and those that are outside of it. The first group is going to validate the soul of your book, but the second group is going to give advice that will expand the book in ways you don’t expect.

Fourth, do beta swaps. The most detailed critiques I received were from simultaneously swapping manuscripts. We were both invested, and also, I’d so often give a critique only to have it become glaringly obvious that the same advice applied to my own.

Query Letter:

Dear Antoinette:

I'm querying you because you love both Murderbot and The Priory of the Orange Tree. The Catalog of the Gods is an upmarket 119,000-word fantasy that will appeal to fans of lush femme fantasy such as the aforementioned Priory and Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse. The novel is dual POV with one humorless sculptor (Cochineal, below) and the other a panromantic rebel, who opposes everything serious.

Cochineal needs a miracle. A master artist and her father's heir, she knows if she can create an artwork deemed worthy by the gods, it will save her people from their divine wrath. As a pinnacle of her effort, she builds a temple of igneous and obsidian, a towering glory of stained glass.

When her father is poisoned and dies, grief proves more powerful than creativity. Her despair deepens after her jealous sister stages a coup—sealing Cochineal inside her own temple. To escape, Cochineal paints her sister's face on the wall in spit and blood; nevertheless, as if the gods blame Cochineal, the sacrifice of art backfires, collapsing the temple. Feeling she, too, has crumbled to dust, Cochineal flees with her lover to foreign lands, only to discover the gods' storm comes to burn the home she left behind.

Betrayed by her sister, abandoned by her people, Cochineal could forsake them to build a family. Or she could find a new vision, one even greater than the temple. A miracle to save them all.

Thank you for your consideration.

Best,

S.R. Spieler