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An Interview with Tara Dairman upon receiving an offer of representation.

01/11/2012

Tara Dairman (wheaties on QT) has signed with agent Ammi-Joan Paquette of Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

Can you tell us a little bit about the book for which you’ve found representation? What inspired you to write it?
My project is a humorous middle-grade novel with the working title GLADYS GATSBY TAKES THE CAKE. Here’s the pitch:

Gladys Gatsby has dreamed of becoming a restaurant critic for The New York Times—she just didn’t expect to be assigned her first review at age 11. Now, if she wants to meet her deadline and hang on to her dream job, she’ll have to defy her fast-food-loving parents, cook her way into the heart of her sixth-grade archenemy, and battle Manhattan’s meanest maitre d’.

How long have you been writing?
Pretty much since I could hold a pencil. Since college, I’ve concentrated mostly on writing plays, but being a novelist has always been my big dream.
How long have you been working on this book?
I’m slightly ashamed to admit it, but my first notes for this book date all the way back to 2005. I drafted the first 60% or so of the book between 2006 and 2009, while working full time and producing two of my plays in festivals in NY, so there were periods of greater and lesser activity.

In 2009, my new husband and I quit our jobs and embarked on a two-year, round-the-world honeymoon. I packed my novel-in-progress in my backpack and swore that when we came home, I’d have a finished draft. I managed a day of work here and there, but the real breakthrough came in September of 2010, when my husband decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and I didn’t. Suddenly I was alone for six days in a small town in Tanzania with absolutely nothing to do but write. So I wrote all day every day and knocked out the last 40% that week.

Then I put it BACK in my backpack for another eight months while we finished our trip! When we returned to the states in June of 2011 I was finally able to type it up, share it with my writers’ group, and start revising.

Was there ever a time you felt like giving up, and what helped you to stay on course?
While I went through many long stretches of not doing any work on this novel, I loved the story so much that I always knew I wanted to finish it. Having my writers’ group cheer me on and demand the rest of the story helped, too. As for the agent search, who doesn’t feel like giving up sometimes? Rejection sucks. But not even trying, if this is your dream, sucks even more.
Is this your first book?
Yup. Well, I wrote a couple of chapters of a doomed literary novel in college, but this is the first book I’ve ever completed. (I did finish a screenplay and a couple of plays before this book, though, and those projects gave me confidence that I could finish a novel, too.)
Do you have any formal writing training?
I earned a B.A. in English & Creative Writing around a decade ago. (And I like to think that I’ve earned an “online M.F.A.” in revising and querying just from reading writing blogs—there are so many terrific, free resources out there!)
Do you follow a writing 'routine' or schedule?
Ha! There’s a reason this book took six years to get finished. Places where I worked on this book: in the Lincoln Tunnel on a New Jersey Transit bus (I used to write during my morning commute), a guesthouse in Morocco, coffeehouses in Brazil, Argentina, Cameroon, Gabon, and Tanzania…and less exotic locales, like my parents’ basement. I do a lot of my drafting longhand, and the less technology there is around to distract me, the better.

Now that I don’t have the excuse of being on the road anymore, I’m trying to develop more of a “routine.”

How many times did you re-write/edit your book?
I’ve done two bigger revisions and several small ones. For most of the time I spent working on this book, I belonged to a writers’ group that met monthly, so I was submitting new chapters and getting feedback as I wrote. I wouldn’t go back and revise chapters right after our meetings, but the feedback did help me moving forward. I did a big revision of the first half or so of the book before I left on my trip, in part to reengage with the story, which I hadn’t worked on for a few months at that point. Once I had a complete draft, I shared it with my writers’ group and did a small revision based on their feedback before querying. After my first round of queries tanked, I did my toughest, most in-depth revision, shedding a lot of backstory and changing the beginning. I beta-tested that version with some friends who had never read the book before and tweaked some more based on their feedback…and I’m now doing another round of edits for my new agent. I’m sure it won’t be the last!
Did you have beta readers for your book?
Lots! It’s a little hard for me to distinguish betas from people who just wanted to read my book as soon as I would let them, but in terms of people who gave me significant feedback on a draft, I had the four other members of my writers’ group, my husband, my sister, and three wonderful friends.
Did you outline your book, or do you write from the hip?
Fairly early in the process, I made a list of chapters and wrote one sentence about what would happen in each one. The book still hews pretty closely to that “outline.”
How long have you been querying for this book? Other books?
This is the first book I’ve ever queried. I sent a “test round” of queries to seven agents in August of 2011, and they were roundly rejected. I retreated, revised the opening of my book heavily, streamlined the query, and jumped back into the game on Halloween with much better results. That second round of querying lasted six weeks before I got an offer, but if you count the first round, the whole process took about four months.
About how many query letters did you send out for this book?
According to QT, I sent 34 queries for this book. I also had six agents request material based on seeing my first page in contests (the Secret Agent and the Baker’s Dozen contests at Miss Snark’s First Victim). I ended up with five offers, but only two of those agents ever saw my query (the rest were from the contests).
On what criteria did you select the agents you queried?
They had to represent middle grade, and ideally had stated somewhere that they were interested in funny books, foodie books, or both!
Did you tailor each query to the specific agent, and if so, how?
I had a personalized sentence or two in just about every query I sent. Sometimes it went at the beginning and sometimes closer to the end, depending on how specific it was. While I was revising my book, my “break activity” was researching agents, and if I found a quote of theirs that said they were looking for a book like mine, I’d make sure to copy it so I could refer to it when I queried them. Another thing I often tried to do was read at least a few pages of a book or two represented by the agent—between Amazon previews and Google books, this isn’t too hard to do. That way, I could tell if they represented work that was like mine in some way, and if it was, I could refer to that in the query letter. (This method also helped me choose which agent to query at some of the larger agencies that had several agents who repped middle grade.)
What advice would you give other writers seeking agents?
Don’t underestimate the importance of having a strong beginning to your story. Most agents ask for sample pages with your query, and if you want them to request to read more, you’ve got to hook them on that first page. (After all, one day, when your book is sitting on the shelf at a bookstore, it’s going to be the same deal—if you want to that browsing reader to buy it, you’d better hook him fast!) To see what kinds of first pages your fellow writers are offering—and which ones are hooking agents, and which ones hook YOU—check out the monthly Secret Agent contests and annual Baker’s Dozen contest at Miss Snark’s First Victim (misssnarksfirstvictim.blogspot.com). Studying the backlogs really helped me shine up my first page, and eventually entering the contests helped me connect with several agents who liked my work—including Joan.

If you need query help, the success stories here on QueryTracker feature great examples of queries that worked. And the “Agent’s Inbox” contest at motherwrite.blogspot.com is another great resource, as you can see peer and agent commentary on both queries and first pages.

Would you be willing to share your query with us?
Sure! Here’s the basic version, to which I added personalization for each agent.

Dear Ms. Agent:

Eleven-year-old Gladys Gatsby loves to cook, but no one in fast-food-obsessed East Dumpsford shares her passion—especially not her parents, who ban her from the kitchen after one teeny, tiny crème-brulée-triggered fire. Gladys finds a new creative outlet in an essay contest in which she writes about her dream job: becoming a restaurant critic for The New York Times. But when her essay lands on a Times editor’s desk, Gladys finds herself taking on that job a lot sooner than she expected!

Her first assignment: review Classy Cakes, a fancy new “dessert bistro” in New York City. To sneak into the city and the restaurant, Gladys will need help from every friend she’s got—and possibly from her worst enemy, Charissa Bentley. The most popular mean girl in the sixth grade is having a birthday party in Manhattan, and if Gladys can get herself invited, she just might manage to meet her deadline and hang on to her dream job.

GLADYS GATSBY TAKES THE CAKE is a 47,000-word, humorous middle-grade novel about a girl who can’t wait to be a grown-up, even if that means biting off more (delicious, gourmet food) than she can chew. The novel stands alone but has series potential.

I graduated from Dartmouth College with a B.A. in Creative Writing and have a play published in the anthology FISHAMBLE FIRSTS (New Island, 2008). My plays and screenplays have been shortlisted for several major awards, which are detailed on my website, taradairman.com.

I would be happy to send my complete manuscript upon your request and have pasted the first [however many] pages below. Thank you so much for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Tara Dairman