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An Interview with Mike Chen upon receiving an offer of representation.

08/27/2015

Mike Chen (bswb97 on QT) has signed with agent Eric Smith of P.S. Literary Agency.

Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you’ve found representation? What inspired you to write it?
HERE AND NOW AND THEN is a time travel story about a father who gets separated from his daughter by a century, then attempts to raise her across time until he discovers that she's been erased. The primary inspirations for this story are an episode of Doctor Who (School Reunion) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (The Inner Light), though for the past few years, I've been exploring ways to blur the line between commercial fiction and science fiction.
How long have you been writing?
I took my first creative writing course at UC Davis in 1999. In my career, I've worked primarily as a marketing/technical writer while ghostwriting a lot of articles. I was in the early crop of sports bloggers starting around 2003, and that got me gigs writing about hockey until I "retired" a few years back to focus on fiction and the geek community.
How long have you been working on this book?
The idea first came up around late 2013. I began querying in March 2015 and there was one revision in May 2015 due to a revise/resubmit.
Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
Actually, about three weeks before I got my first offer, I felt like I'd run out of road. Looking back, it was silly, as I had five fulls and two partials out. But I'd just gotten submission rejections from top of my top-tier agents, along with a string of form rejects on queries. The agents who had submissions were taking their time and it just seemed to his a straight month of nothing but rejections or silence. My list of agents to query was whittling down and that frightened me. It was hard to keep perspective, and fortunately my critique partners are very good at slapping me upside the head.
Is this your first book?
I've queried two previous novels, one in the same vein (sci-fi/commercial mash-up) that got some traction but ultimately went nowhere. The other was a more straightforward commercial novel.
Do you have any formal writing training?
One class at UC Davis in 1999 (thank you Wendy Sheanin, who now works in publishing). Other than that, it was simply a lot of reading and a lot more of writing, both fiction and non-fiction. At one point, I was producing 3-4 hockey blog posts or articles a week, so you learn to be efficient under those demands. You also find your voice with that much practice.
Do you follow a writing "routine" or schedule?
When I was in the heart of drafting and revising, I tried to set aside 45 dedicated minutes a day, either before work or after work. Having a baby in the middle of it both helped and didn't help. I was up at odd hours bottle feeding, and while I couldn't write, I was able to THINK about plot/character problems quite a bit and jot down notes.
How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
I write drafts in layers -- 1st draft is a skeleton piece with mostly dialogue, 2nd draft fills in character details, etc. So I have 10 drafts saved, but they're really more just building blocks. I would say of completed "send to my CP" drafts, there were four. The initial -- which my main CP told me to rip out the middle 50% and she was right -- a heavily revised second based on feedback, a prose/copyedit third draft, and a fourth draft based on revise/resubmit feedback from an agent who I ultimately did not sign with.
Did you have beta readers for your book?
One primary CP who read all revisions and two more beta readers who read more polished drafts as sanity checks.
Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
I'm a plotter, so I outlined using the Save The Cat model.
How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
I started querying this book in April. I stopped in May because of a revise/resubmit request. Restarted in June and continued regularly through July. I got an offer in early August and had competing offers come in within a week of that thanks to nudges.

My other two novels were queried in 2010 and 2013.

About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
The final tally was about 110, though I'd say 10 of those clearly had no chance from the beginning due to the agent not taking on new clients or being out of the genre. I only sent those because they were known as fast responders and I figured I had nothing to lose.

My final tally (including stuff that trickled in after I accepted) is:

  • About 90 queries with responses or known CNRs and about 10 left floating in cyberspace
  • 18 requests
  • 4 offers
  • 1 additional withdraw-from-consideration on my part
On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
As I blurred genres, I picked both sci-fi and commercial agents, with a handful of literary fiction agents who dabbled in magical realism or other genre elements. Funny enough, the request responses were split completely 50/50. The offers, though, were 3 SF, 1 CF. The withdraw was for a CF agent, as I ultimately felt that SF agents would have a better handle on what I was going for.
Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
I researched what I could and had two slightly different version for SF and CF. Sometimes the intro paragraph would be tailored if I knew the agent was a fan of certain works or if we had something in common. By and large, though, I've heard enough agents say that the personalization is nice but ultimately not really a factor in their decisions.
What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
  1. Don't give up.
  2. When an agent rejects you and says "it's not for me," it really is not for them. I had one full MS reject from a top-tier SF agent, and she said that she loved the story and writing but since she's not really into time travel, thinking about fine-tuning the logistics made her head spin. Thus, it really wasn't for her. Similarly, one of the few lit-fic agents who requested the full MS said she loved the story despite not being a genre reader, but the prose wasn't artful enough for her, and she admitted that was purely based on her lit-fic background. The agents that offered immediately connected with it and knew exactly what I was going for.
  3. Similarly, when you get contradicting feedback, particularly in form rejects, don't take it to heart. I've heard that my book does not have strong writing, has exceptional writing, has a convoluted plot, has a plot that's easy to follow for time travel, has a slow pace, has a perfect pace, has too many SF elements, has too little SF elements, and so on. Basically, for every positive feedback I got, I got contradicting negative feedback. It really opened my eyes to how subjective the whole thing is. So that form reject cliche about the industry being subjective is absolutely true.
  4. It's really easy to overcomplicate your query letter. Focus on the main points (what is the main conflict? what is preventing your protag from achieving his/her goal? what complicates things further? what are the main stakes going into the final act?) and strip back as many details as you can. Put an emphasis on voice and pace over specifics. My personal belief is that the query should end on a cliffhanger that sets up the final act. At that point, you know basically where the story is heading but that last paragraph acts as a teaser for how it ends without explicitly stating it.
Would you be willing to share your query with us?
Sure. Here is what I posted in the Successful Queries thread on the QT forum.

As I mentioned, I split between commercial and SF. There were two variations for the post-hook blurb. I'll paste both below.

The main hook:

Kin Stewart thought parenting a teen couldn’t get any harder, but then he got separated from his daughter -- by a century.

Before that, he was a normal family man, working and parenting teenage Miranda -- a far cry from his old job as a time-traveling secret agent from 2142. Stranded in suburbia since the 1990s because of a botched mission, he’d spent the last 17 years thinking about soccer practices and family vacations instead of temporal fugitives.

But when his rescue team suddenly arrives, Kin is forced to abandon his family and return to 2142, where everyone -- including his fiancee, who’s unaware of time travel -- thinks he’s only been gone weeks, not years. Ordered to cut all contact with the past, Kin defies his superiors and attempts to raise his daughter from the future. Until one day he discovers that Miranda’s being erased from history...and it might be his fault.

With time running out, Miranda’s very existence depends upon Kin taking a final trip across time, no matter the cost. Break time-travel rules, tell his fiancee about Miranda and his secret family, even put his own life on the line; those are risks Kin will take because there’s only one thing more important than the past and the future: doing right by his daughter.

Commercial Fiction Blurb

HERE AND NOW AND THEN (90,000 words) is a father/daughter novel with a time-travel twist: the character-driven time travel of The Time-Traveler’s Wife written with the mainstream sensibilities of Nick Hornby.

Science Fiction Blurb

HERE AND NOW AND THEN (90,000 words) is science fiction for people who hate science fiction. An intimate character-driven look at how far people will go for the ones they love, I believe the blend of sci-fi elements and traditional themes can go beyond genre readers and into the mainstream. Think The Time Traveler’s Wife as written by Nick Hornby with a dash of Torchwood.

Bio

A lifelong writer, my published credits include contributions to Thirsty? San Francisco, Fox Sports, SB Nation, Yahoo Sports, NYTimes.com, Maple Street Press, and various local arts magazines. I also run a freelance writing business.

Thanks for letting me share my journey! I hope this helps some QT users out there.

Mike