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An Interview with Heather Petty upon receiving an offer of representation.

Heather Petty (claena on QT) has signed with agent Eleanor Jackson of Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency.

How long have you been writing?
I’ve loved writing stories since I was a kid. But I didn’t get serious about fiction writing until college. I was lucky enough to have various people along the way who really saw through the rough to the potential inside me and encouraged that.

Most notably, YA author Terry Farley, who wrote the Phantom Stallion series, was my English teacher in high school. She actually kept me after class one day to praise a piece of writing I did for her, and made me promise I’d join the school newspaper, which was the definitive start to me thinking of myself as a writer. YA author and Professor Susan Palwick was so committed to encouraging me as a fiction writer in college, that when I couldn’t take her writing seminar because of a work conflict, she offered to mentor me one-on-one at her house for credit. She pushed me and made me work hard, but she also believed in my ability even when I didn’t. I’ll never be able to thank either of them enough for believing in me like that.

Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
I’m not really the giving up type. When I decide to do something, I’m pretty driven and focused until I accomplish it. But there have been times when life got in the way. I like to say it took me eight years to write my first book, but I did little things like get married and have a baby in there somewhere. There have definitely been times when I’ve wondered if this novel was the one that was going to break me into publishing or not. But I always believed that I would be published someday.
Is this your first book?
No. My first full novel was a middle grade novel about pirates--the eight year book that might never see the light of day. This is officially my second, although I did a lot of writing between then and now on projects that I either never finished or aren’t really ready to become actual books.
How long have you been working on this book?
It took me four months of writing time and about two months to revise and edit, all with the help of my critique partner (who I call the Russian Goddess). But I work full time and have a four-year-old daughter, so being able to write the book in that short period of time was the result of lots of husband/grandparent/friend support, and resulted in an extremely messy house.
Do you have any formal writing training?
Yes. I have an English degree with a Journalism minor, and spent most of my college years focused on writing children’s fiction and writing for the college paper. For the last nine years I’ve worked as a Technical Writer and Editor for a software company.
Do you follow a writing "routine" or schedule?
When I’m in the thick of it, I eat dinner with my family (most of the time), and then rush off to the local B&N or Starbucks, order some tea, set up the laptop, put my ear buds in, and write until they close. Most importantly, I don’t let myself sign in to the internet, and I don’t answer the cell unless it’s my husband or a call I’ve been expecting. But even when I’m not writing, my brain is pretty much living in the story. I usually write notes down constantly and email them to myself or jot them down in the mini comp book I keep in my purse. I keep a notes journal for each project next to my bed for midnight inspiration. And the weekends are pure writing time.
How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
I did this cool thing with my crit partner, where we exchanged chapters as we finished them, critiqued, and sent them back. I revised as I went along, which actually helped push me through when I was blocked or searching for the next big idea. So, by the time I reached the end of the book, I really had a pretty solid second draft. After that it was just about going through and making sure there weren’t any major development holes to fill and doing final edits and a read-through.
Did you have beta readers for your book?
Besides the Russian Goddess, I had several readers who would give me encouragement and feedback. And when I had a solid book that I thought was ready to submit, I sent a copy off to three high school girls, who read and gave me comments. They called themselves my Focus Group, which was really cute.
Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
I’m a very organic writer. Too much outline, and I feel like I’ve already told the story. But I do write forward—scenes that I think are coming. And I keep a “notes” file for each of my projects for character info that I don’t think needs to go into the book, research, general plot ideas, or whatever.
How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
This is really odd, but I started writing CAMP WYLDE on June 23, 2008 (I keep dated files as I go for backup). I sent my first query in January, and got my first offer of representation on June 24, 2009. So, a little over six months of querying, but I got my offer exactly one year and one day after I started the project. I did send out maybe ten queries on a MG novel a couple of years ago, but when a good friend of mine told me it wasn’t ready, I listened and pulled back to rewrite. I was actually in the middle of working on that when I got the idea for this project.
About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
I sent 96 query letters, got 18 requests for more material, 68 rejections, and 3 offers of representation.
On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
Well, at first, before I knew about QueryTracker, I mostly used AgentQuery. But once I found QT, I did all my research here. My main criteria were that the agent represented YA and didn’t say “No Fantasy” on their website (or on AQ).
Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
I did at first. But after a while, I decided to focus more on the hook and voice of my query than on to whom I was sending it. Once I rewrote the query (with the help of the QT forums), I stopped personalizing. The response I got was overwhelming, so I don’t think the lack of personalization hurt at all. I did always send queries out one at a time, with the agent name at the top of the query letter.
What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
I have a few points:
  1. Don’t be intimidated into fixing what’s not broken: The one lesson I learned over and over in this process is that there are only a few agents who are a right fit for your project. No matter how much you like an agent’s blog or interview or Twitter feed, the right agent for your project is the one who shares your vision for the book. You may find people who love your concept or your writing, but want to completely change your characters or story arc or whatever. While I believe you have to be willing to edit and revise until it bleeds, you also need to have the courage to stand up for your book, and not let someone turn it into their book. I was forced to turn down an agent who I really liked, because he wanted to turn my book into something else entirely. That doesn’t make him a bad agent, just not the agent for me or this project.
  2. Don’t always go for the “perfect fit”: More often than not, the agents who rep stories similar to mine, or who say they’re looking for stories similar to mine, are the ones who sent off form rejections in minutes. My greatest success always seemed to be with those agents who I thought wouldn’t even give the project a second look. In fact, my first offer came from an agent who doesn’t even have YA listed as a genre she represents. You just never know who will connect to your piece. Query widely.
  3. Don’t be discouraged: Everyone says that it’s not personal, that rejection is part of the game, blah, blah, blah. So I’m not sure it will help for me to reiterate those sentiments. But once I started talking to agents who wanted to represent me and loved the manuscript, I started to see what agents mean when they say, “It’s not you; it’s me.”
Going back to what I said in the previous points, a rejection doesn’t mean your manuscript is flawed, nor does it mean that it is unworthy of publication. It just means you haven’t found the right agent at the right time. For me, the best advice came from a random blog post (I don’t even remember who wrote it) that suggested I start working on a different book while in the query process. I figured if I finished that project, polished it, and it was ready to submit, I’d shelve Wylde and start to query the new book, while writing yet another book.
Would you be willing to share your query with us?
Of course!

Dear Ms Agent,

I am seeking representation for my YA urban fantasy novel, CAMP WYLDE, the story of 17-year-old Drew Donovan, who always wanted Faerie creatures to be real--until they start to wake up in the forest surrounding her summer camp job.

Drew had an absolutely perfect, not-at-all-dangerous plan for her last real summer vacation: library job, reality show marathons, rinse, repeat. Her plan did not include working at Wylde Lake (as Drew's pretty sure the forest gives her hives), nor did it include getting caught in the boys' bathroom on her very first day by the hot-camp-boy-perfection that is Liam Walsh. And in no way did her plan include being chased across camp by a giant black dog that can make people disappear or being kidnapped by a Kelpie intent on drowning her in the lake.

And, really, by the time a goblin tries to off her in the communal bathroom just days after the moon disappears from the sky, she's pretty much had enough.

Drew could deal with the fact that faeries and monsters are real. And that Liam was one of them? Well, it's not like he blends into the crowd. But how in the world was she supposed to believe that dark and beautiful Liam could fall for her with Charlie's Angels: Lifeguard Edition on duty?

Of course, she isn't left to ponder that mystery for long. When Drew discovers that the camp's waking creatures, monster attacks, and bizarre happenings are actually the omens that brought Liam's family to Wylde Lake in the first place, Drew must follow the clues of an ancient prophecy to save Liam from succumbing to his darker self. Even if, as the prophecy predicts, she'll have to give her life for his.

I am an active member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. I received an English degree with a writing emphasis and Journalism minor from the University of Nevada, Reno. I was also mentored by Susan Palwick, a young adult fantasy author and professor at UNR. For the past nine years, I have worked as a Technical Writer and Editor for Bally Technologies.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Heather Petty