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An Interview with Mark O'Brien upon receiving an offer of representation.


Mark O'Brien (mobrienbooks on QT) has signed with agent Heather Flaherty of The Bent Agency.

Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you’ve found representation? What inspired you to write it?
SWEETEST DOWNFALL is a young adult contemporary romance about two boys, Zeke and Nick, at odds over the death of Zeke's best friend—and then Nick moves into Zeke's house. My manuscripts typically don't have one main inspiration, but in this case the very first draft was inspired in large part by the Tracy Chapman song "Fast Car."
How long have you been writing?
I've always been writing in one form or another—I won a few elementary school-wide poetry contests and attempted a Harry Potter knockoff or two before I got serious and finished a full-length manuscript in the summer of 2011.
How long have you been working on this book?
About one year.
Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
Oh wow, yes. I've queried quite a lot (see next question) with little to no positive feedback at times. I think what helped me continue was the fact that I couldn't see myself doing anything else. I queried all throughout my high school career, and after graduating this summer, I knew I needed to get as serious as possible if I wanted a career as an author—and I did. Basically, I stayed on course because I wanted to be able to eat!
Is this your first book?
This is my sixth. I've queried all of them with varying degrees of dedication.
Do you have any formal writing training?
No. Formal writing training is the opposite of a necessity—not to harp on the teen writer thing, but I wrote this book entirely when I was seventeen.
Do you follow a writing "routine" or schedule?
When I'm drafting with few or zero other distractions, I try for a thousand words a day. This isn't always possible, and some days I write three or four times that amount. It's important for me to have a goal, but not to beat myself up about not reaching it all the time.
How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
I'd say SWEETEST DOWNFALL went through maybe seven rounds of edits before I got my agent—two on my own, two after feedback from beta readers, one after feedback from agents, and another two with the help of my Pitch Wars contest mentor.
Did you have beta readers for your book?
Yes, I had about six other sets of eyes on my manuscript before it went out.
Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
I write from the hip—I'm a "pantser." I've heard countless people say you absolutely must plot out every detail of your book before writing it, but A) people who say you absolutely must do X, Y, and Z to be a real true writer are always incorrect and possibly trying to sell you something, B) if you do heavy revisions so that you follow basic story structure, you'll be absolutely fine, and C) I'm living proof that it's an incorrect assumption.
How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
I've queried this book since February 2015. (Fun fact: I sent the query to my now-agent, Heather Flaherty, on the same day I started querying this project. She was one of the first agents ever to see it!) I've queried off and on with other books since fall of 2011.
About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
According to my handy-dandy QueryTracker, I sent out twenty-nine queries total.
On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
The agents absolutely had to have sales to large New York publishers and/or be at an agency that had sold to them, no exceptions. This is crucial if you want to get a traditional publisher—you don't want to be an agent or agency's guinea pig! From there, I selected agents I felt would be a good fit for me and my book. I knew I wanted an editorial agent, so I queried mostly (if not only) those. I also made sure our personalities meshed by searching for them online and looking through their social media.
Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
Not always! If they'd read a previous project of mine (which quite a few had), I'd mention that upfront. If they'd tweeted or blogged about their Manuscript Wish Lists (#MSWL) and I felt my book fit the bill, I'd talk about that as well. Otherwise, I sent out my standard query. I've found most agents like when writers include a line of personalization (and all of them like when we use their name instead of "Dear Agent,"), but some want to get straight to the story.
What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
You can never research too much. Know when to give up on a project and start a new one—if I hadn't shelved my last manuscript, I wouldn't be signed with a major New York agency and a sharp new agent right now! Also, a lot of people seem to talk about the manuscript that got them their agent as if they knew from the moment of its genesis that it was The One. Here's the truth for me: I thought every manuscript I wrote was going to be The One. I mention this to illustrate that you might never know when you're working on the book that will get you your agent in a few months' time. Keep working, don't be afraid to stop sending out a project, and always, always improve.