Success Story Interview - Steph Green

An Interview with Steph Green (phenompen on QT) upon receiving an offer of representation from agent Linda Pratt of Wernick & Pratt Agency.


QT: Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it?
Steph Green:
Tell Everyone We’re Dead is a young adult novel about a post-apocalyptic future in which natural resources are extremely limited and society is in a constant state of war. Children train as soldiers from age five until they are deployed into combat at age fifteen. My main character, Hazel, must decide whether to run away with her best friend, join the military she mistrusts, or find her own way—but each choice appears to lead to almost certain death. (See my query letter below for a better version of this!)

I’ve always been a fan of young adult novels—the immediacy, the intensity, the pace—but until recently I never actually considered writing one. I read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and that was the first thing that really allowed me to view young adult writing as serious literature, and to consider that writing for young adults could tackle traditionally adult themes. Then I read The Hunger Games and that cemented the idea for me that there really don’t need to be boundaries between adult and young adult literature in terms of theme, subject matter, and so on—the difference is more in style and how issues are dealt with. I’d had the idea of writing about child soldiers in a book for adult readers, and I decided to see if I could push the limits of what I’d always thought was considered “appropriate” for young adult readers by taking this idea and presenting it for teenagers, writing the violence of war—in its many forms—realistically.
QT: How long have you been writing?
Steph Green:
Forever. For as long as I’ve been able to write.
QT: How long have you been working on this book?
Steph Green:
I started writing the book in late September 2010, and finished my first draft in early April 2011, though I took a few weeks off here and there to have the flu, a life, etc. I worked on revisions with my friend/family-based readership for a couple of weeks and started querying in late April 2011.
QT: Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
Steph Green:
I had a plan, which was to query everyone on the long list of agents I compiled on QueryTracker before I’d consider stopping. I only got about halfway through that list by the time I got my first offer. So it wasn’t so much that I felt like giving up, since I knew I’d stick to my plan and not just quit. But I definitely did lose hope. Maybe a month or so into the querying process my attitude changed from excited but cautious optimism to acceptance of my impending failure. I never sat down and thought of it this way at the time, but starting out I’d say I would have given myself maybe a 65% chance of getting an agent. And after the initial excitement faded it sank down to maybe 5%. But that was all in my own mind, not based on what was happening in reality. I had a pretty steady stream of requests since I started querying and there was no point after my first request that I didn’t have at least a few submissions out, but the waiting really got to me. I tortured myself by reading about others who had gotten an offer in a week, or on their first submission, their third query, etc etc. Those kinds of super-success stories drove me crazy. Conversely, I was encouraged by stories of hard-won successes. I loved reading about people who’d queried for a year or sent 200 letters before getting their offer, those made me feel better to some extent. It may sound kind of negative to explain it this way, but since there is no set rule on how everything will happen on the querying journey, I was desperate to compare my own experience to others, even though I knew it wasn’t all that relevant. I either read somewhere or decided that 15 submissions was the average before getting an offer, and luckily I got my offer after my 15th submission, otherwise that would really have driven me nuts!

Aside from obsessing and reading about other writers’ experiences, positive feedback from my readers helped me to stay on course. My husband and my mom have been my two biggest supporters, and having them around to assist in overanalyzing rejection letters and remind me what’s great about my book helped a lot.
QT: Is this your first book?
Steph Green:
I wrote manuscripts as my thesis projects for my undergraduate and graduate studies, but those were short story and poetry collections (and not anything I’d try to get published as collections) so they don’t really count. I wrote one novel for adults several years ago. That was before I started grad school and it was really a challenge to myself to see if I could actually write something that long. Once I did, I decided to experiment with querying. I didn’t really know what I was doing and I intended to work on the novel more in grad school, so it didn’t go very far. That novel is stored on my computer now, awaiting the day when I get really really good at revision, and then maybe I’ll work on it some more.
QT: Do you have any formal writing training?
Steph Green:
Lots, as my student loan debt attests! My studies have been focused on writing since high school, when I attended a magnet school for writing. I majored in writing in college and then got my MFA. At some point, probably in the year after college and before grad school when I discovered that earning money is important for living, my mindset changed so that I was more interested in becoming a writing professor than a writer, and that was a major part of the reason why I got my MFA. Once I graduated, I realized that finding work as a professor was not going to be easy, and that it wouldn’t earn me a living even if I could find the work. I stopped writing for a few years after that, and it wasn’t until my husband reminded me of why I’ve been so focused on writing my whole life that I finally started again, with this book.
QT: Do you follow a writing routine or schedule?
Steph Green:
While I was working on this book, I would try to write after work every day for 1-2 hours. If I was feeling inspired, I’d write a bit on the weekend as well. I didn’t always stick to this, if I was very tired or just didn’t feel like it, and I took a few breaks that were sometimes a couple of weeks long here and there. I certainly wish I could write for a prolonged period every day, but at least for now I have to work...
QT: How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
Steph Green:
Every day I’d start by reading over what I’d written the day before and edit as I went. I rewrote the whole first chapter once, and restructured the first two chapters once or twice after that. I also went through and did some smaller edits after feedback from my readers, probably two or three times. I’m about to begin a revision for my agent as well.
QT: Did you have beta readers for your book?
Steph Green:
My husband, my mom, my grandmother, and a couple of my friends and coworkers. I probably got the best feedback from my friend who has a writing background from her education, but they were all helpful.
QT: Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
Steph Green:
I mostly write from the hip. I had a few scribbly notes and text messages to myself here and there for ideas I wanted to use but hadn’t gotten to yet. I kept a reference file so I could remember details about the characters and locations, and over time this turned into an outline of sorts. I am trying to use an outline for the sequel, as I think it will help me with pacing and focus, but it’s not what I’m used to so I’m still experimenting with the best way to use one.
QT: How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
Steph Green:
I started querying on April 24, 2011, got my first offer on August 22, 2011, and accepted the second offer I’d gotten on September 1, 2011.
QT: About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
Steph Green:
I sent 91 query letters, got 19 manuscript requests (full and partial), and 2 offers.
QT: On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
Steph Green:
To start, I went through lots of YA writing/agent blogs and read interviews with and articles by agents. I queried anyone who expressed an interest in something present in my book (themes, style, subgenre, etc), anyone who liked books I thought were similar, and so on. After that, I read more interviews/blogs and queried anyone who didn’t specifically say they WEREN’T looking for something present in my book, so long as I liked the sound of the agent overall. After that, I read the comments section on QueryTracker for the agents I’d queried and whenever another writer got an offer, I’d look to see if they listed the agents they’d queried. If they did, I’d go through their list, do some preliminary screening (make sure the agent is accepting my genre, look at their agency bio, read any interviews with the agent), and add them to my list as long as they passed my screening. I didn’t query every single one of these agents, mind you, I just had them selected on my to do list. I started by sending out a batch of about 30 query letters over roughly a two week period, then waited a month or so. Then I sent out ten more, and from then on every time I got a rejection or request I’d send out another letter to a new agent. That was the best method I came up with (with much help from the QueryTracker message board) to keep at it but not obsess and go overboard. I’m actually providing this much detail in my response so hopefully it will help others. I found that determining an amount and rate at which to research new agents and send out query letters was one of the hardest parts of the whole process.
QT: Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
Steph Green:
I wanted to, and I really tried. Basically, if the agent gave me anything significant to draw from, I would try to work it into my letter. But lots of agents really don’t give you much. If they didn’t have any interviews or a detailed bio or represent something I’d read, they got the form letter.
QT: What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
Steph Green:
Stay organized, and if you’re the kind of person who does well with a structured way of doing things, go with that (like my method of when to send out a new query, etc.) I found that it helped me feel somewhat in control in a situation that is largely and frustratingly out of a writer’s control. It also gave me something to focus on and gauge my progress.

Use the QueryTracker forums for help with your query letter. I did a revamp based on their feedback and my request rate definitely improved.

Also, don’t quit. I can’t say don’t lose hope because I did and everyone probably does here and there. But there’s nothing to lose but time by forging ahead, and everything to gain.
QT: Would you be willing to share your query with us?
Steph Green:
This is the final draft that I used as my template, then inserted personalization and other relevant info as needed:

Query Letter:

Dear Agent,

In this war, everybody dies. Hazel just wants to make it to age sixteen.

Hazel Crafton has been training for war since she was five years old. She has always known that she would be sent to battle—like her parents, her neighbors, everyone. If the poison water doesn’t get her, the thirst will split her lips until they bleed. The marching will grind her down until her bones gleam bleached in moonlight among the collapsed houses and cracked pavement, all that remain of the world, save for the few small towns still scraping by within the warring Zones.

She has been trained to deal with the unrelenting thirst, the countless miles that must be marched, the physical pain of battle wounds—but not the devastation she will face when she must finally make her first kill. Find a weapon. Seek the target. Focus her sight. Feet shoulder-width apart, squared hips, unlock the elbows. Quit trembling! Exhale and squeeze. If she doesn’t want to die, she’ll have to kill.

When Hazel’s best friend, Eugene, asks her to run away with him, she discovers the powerful force of her own will to survive. Though the odds of living through her time as a soldier are slim, attempting escape means almost certain death. And she may not even have the chance to choose for herself if Praha, the mysterious and brutal embodiment of a good soldier, won’t yield in his inexplicable preoccupation with Hazel, and his quest to make her become a dedicated soldier, or die trying.

Hazel has to stay alive. So she must escape. Join the rebels, and take down the military. Save her friends, prove her worth.

Get out alive.

TELL EVERYONE WE’RE DEAD, a completed 77,000-word young adult novel, is the first in a potential series following Hazel’s battle to survive in a world where resources are limited, love is little more than a temporary escape from pain, and everyone is a potential enemy.

I am a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh. I have been invited to read my work at many events, including the Prague International Writers Festival and the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival’s Night of Fresh Voices. I was awarded first place in the Leslie Sander Prize for Fiction. My writing has been published in The Hartford Courant.

(Why I picked this agent)

I am grateful for your time and consideration.