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An Interview with Gail Shepherd upon receiving an offer of representation.

02/13/2012

Gail Shepherd (gailshepherd on QT) has signed with agent Kristin Miller-Vincent of D4EO Literary Agency.

Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it.
It's middle-grade science fantasy with ecological themes. The main character, Amanda, is a bioengineering genius who travels to another planet to stop animal extinction on Earth and to find her mother. I was inspired by a beautiful BBC TV series, "Planet Earth" — the diversity and plain goofy weirdness of the life forms depicted was staggering. The environments felt so alien, so distant from our human concerns, so worthy of preservation, and so fragile. I carried those images in my head for a long time. I'm fascinated by how related we all are on this planet, and also how much we are strangers to each other.
How long have you been writing?
I wrote the Thanksgiving play in fourth grade, which was performed for the entire school with a full cast: "Poor Mr. Turkey." I see some thematic continuity here….
How long have you been working on this book?
It took me a little over a year to plan and write. I'm still revising it.
Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
There was a point, at about month three, when I realized exactly how much I did not know about writing fiction. Like many people writing first novels, I'd figured it would be a breeze. I'm a good writer, I have imagination, right? But I didn't know squat about plotting and large structural issues. I was seat-of-pantsing it, which I will never, ever do again. I got a big, fat reality check after a couple of months, and that's when I really buckled down to learn my craft. I studied really really intensively. That hunger to just eat up every scrap of information about writing fiction kept me going. It was so interesting! So did my lovely SCBWI critique group, and lots of strokes I got from beta readers. I have a HUGE support system. Much more than I deserve. Their belief in me was unflagging and very, very generous.
Is this your first book?
No, I wrote another novel about 15 years ago. I sent it to a writer I admired, who sent it to her agent, and I got a revision request from that agent. Put it in a drawer. Never answered the request, never rewrote a word. I was an idiot. I've learned a lot since then.
Do you have any formal writing training?
I have an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Florida, but my genre was poetry.
Do you follow a writing 'routine' or schedule?
I was self-employed when I wrote this, so I sort of mooned around all day writing, taking breaks, writing again. Now I have a full-time job. I get up every morning at 5:30 and write for an hour and a half before work. I write for three or four hours on Saturday and Sunday. I'm terrified of letting the time and effort I've put in so far slip through my fingers. So I'm very disciplined now that I have a job.
How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
At least four full rewrites, plus lots of tinkering. I'm doing another revision now based on Kristin's notes. She's an excellent editor, and I'm totally down with everything she's asked me to do. I absolutely love crafting — it's the first draft that's hard for me. I could tinker and revise indefinitely. I assume somebody will stop me at some point!
Did you have beta readers for your book?
Many. I'm so grateful to them. Family, friends, and complete strangers. Other kid-lit writers. I think I took something like 95 percent of their suggested edits. They were always right on target.
Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
I WROTE from the hip. Never again. I've fully outlined both my next two novels.
How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
This is really the only book I've ever queried. The whole process took six months. I started at an agonizingly slow pace, because I was so scared. Send a query. Wait. Send a query. Wait. Around month five, I knew I couldn't drag it out any further — it's too emotionally draining. So I sent out a larger number all at once and got a lot of requests.
On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
I researched them all pretty heavily. And I followed the advice to craft the query to the agent — at the beginning. I'm honestly not sure that did any good. Agents I thought were a perfect match sent me form rejections. Agents who seemed like a ridiculous long-shot had sincere interest. It's a decision each writer needs to make on his or her own. I'll just say this: You never know. It's pretty hard to predict what a person you've never met is going to fall for. But you DO have to check their genres and read their guidelines very, very carefully.
Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
Yes, early on. I read many of the books the agents were representing. I fell rapturously in love with a few agents based on their authors. And that's one great thing that did come out of this long, hard, process — I found authors who are now some of my favorites. Two in particular: Ellen Potter and Anne Ursu are the writers I aspire to be some day. I might never have stumbled across them if I hadn't queried their agents.
What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
It's just an awful, awful process. No matter how much emotional distance you tell yourself you have, every rejection hurts, whether it's a form rejection or thoughtful, extensive feedback. And it can drag on for ages. At least one quarter of the agents I queried never responded — some because they have a no response means no policy, others because they never got around to me. I had other agents that took six months to respond — even agents who had requested fulls or partials (I'm not knocking them, it's just the way the business is). But once you sign with an agent — best case scenario is, you'll never have to go through it again! It's sort of like a hazing ritual, and if you make it out the other side you'll be a lot stronger (and perhaps be better prepared for any editorial rejections, if that happens.)
Would you be willing to share your query with us?

Dear Ms. Miller,

I'm querying because I know you're looking for middle-grade fiction; I'm hoping THE PARADOX CURE will pique your interest. PARADOX is a fast-paced, planet-hopping adventure set in the near future, starring a sharp-tongued twelve-year-old bioengineering genius. The novel ought to appeal to kids who love recent middle-grade releases like Wildwood and Down the Mysterly River. And to series-addicts hooked on Artemis Fowl and Philip Pullman's novels.

Amanda Shine has a trash-talking bat, an ape with personal-space issues, and a snow leopard on wheels--and she needs every wing and claw of their help. Her mother has gone missing during a crucial experiment. Earth’s animals are dying in droves—thanks to widespread amateur genetic engineering. Amanda suspects both her mom and the potential cure for extinction are nine billion miles across the solar system on a planet called Paradox. But to make the trans-universal hike, she’ll have to suck up to smarmy real estate mogul H.C. Chafey. And Chafey has plans of his own for Amanda’s stratospheric I.Q.

Earth’s dwindling species have taken refuge on Paradox thanks to a mysterious project code-named ARC. A radical terrorist group led by a demented Tasmanian devil is bent on revenge against humans. And Chafey wants to clear Paradox of animal life to make room for human housing—he just can't do it without Amanda's knowledge of genetics. The extinction clock is ticking: Amanda needs to foil the terrorists and find a way to disrupt Chafey’s plans. But when it comes to groping through the static between good and evil, off-the-charts intelligence may not be enough.

Amanda aches to keep her family safe in a universe where all bets on human superiority—and survival—are off. She struggles to make sense of vexing moral dilemmas, where family and duty, love and science, what’s right and what’s necessary, are turned pole against pole like magnets in a matchbox. Can she fight her way free of a paradox?

The novel is complete at 67,000 words. I've finished the first draft of a second middle-grade novel, multicultural/magic realism set just after the Vietnam War. I have an M.A. in creative writing (U of Florida); I’ve published short fiction, poetry, and nonfiction in magazines and anthologies (Poetry, Yale Review, Iowa Review, Best American Food Writing, and others); and I am a member of SCBWI. PARADOX is my first novel. Many thanks for your consideration; I've enclosed the opening ten pages below, per your guidelines.