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Friday, February 24, 2012

One Story's Journey: From Idea to Manuscript to Query Letter

My first query, ready to fold up and mail.

It all began 17 years ago when a vivid dream I'd had gave me an idea for a story.  It seemed to me that it could be a really good story.  It was different from other ideas I'd had in the past -- if I ever wrote the story, it would not be a picture book or a short story for a magazine, but a fantasy novel for middle grade readers.  After a few days of mulling over my idea, I wrote a few sentences about it in one of my notebooks.  I also jotted down some character names that kept jumping into my mind whenever I thought about the story.  Brule.  Sasha.  Nodin.  Aric.  Lilia.   And then I stopped.  I set my notebook aside, and went on with my busy life.

I never forgot about my story idea.  It always seemed to be lurking there, in the back of my brain.  Every so often, it would leap to the forefront of my thoughts, but each time, I pushed it back into the shadows with a stern Not yet -- I don't have the time right now.  Maybe next week. Or next month.

"Next month" turned into almost twenty-four months.  Then, while typing up an assignment for my correspondence course on writing, I felt the overwhelming urge to write about my story idea.  My brain seemed to be insisting on a back-up, fervently whispering, If you don't write it all down, you might forget it!  Even though I'd told myself over and over again that I would work on the story soon, some part of me knew that it would not be soon.  If I didn't store my ideas somewhere other than my head, I might lose it all.

When I'd finished my assignment, I searched until I found that old notebook.  I copied my notes onto the computer, then listed every detail that I wanted to remember about my idea.  I wrote a basic outline of the plot, then saved it all to a file on the desktop.  I could almost hear my brain sigh with relief.

For the next twelve years, I worked on raising my kids, and did very little writing.  Meanwhile, my story idea waited patiently in that computer file.  My husband even had to transfer it over to a new computer when the old one was dying, and my idea continued to wait. Every once in awhile, I would catch sight of the file on the desktop and feel guilty for abandoning my story for so long.  Not yet, I'd tell myself again.  I don't have time to write it yet.

Finally, in 2009, I found myself with some time to write.  (To be honest, I'd had the time before then, but had filled it with activities other than writing -- mostly with scrapbooking.)  I think part of the reason I'd kept putting it off was simply that I was scared.  I'd never written a story longer than ten pages before; I couldn't imagine writing a novel.  But I finally had a few hours to myself every week, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to accomplish something big with my writing.  I had to try.

Obviously, getting started was the hard part -- it took me fourteen long years to start!  Once I finally began writing, however, the words seemed to just flow out of my head and onto the computer screen.  In two and a half months, I'd written 175 pages -- and my story still wasn't done!  I took a break from writing for the busy Christmas season, fully intending to finish my story the following month.

I wrote absolutely nothing for all of 2010.  I'm still disappointed in myself for wasting that whole year!  The important thing, though, is that in January of 2011 I began writing once again.  By the end of that month, I finally finished my first draft of the manuscript, almost 300 pages.  I finally had a name for my story, as well: Kyra's Secret. (I normally come up with titles for my stories early in the writing process -- sometimes even before the story itself!  This one didn't have a title until I'd finished writing, and even then it took awhile to come up with one that fit the story just right.)

Since that time, I've been proofreading and revising Kyra's Secret.  Several people have helped me out, and I'm very grateful to them all! My sister Christine and friend Mimi bravely trudged through that first draft, pointing out many of its weaknesses, asking questions, and offering suggestions.  Everything they said made sense to me, and I agreed with their criticisms. I rewrote many of the chapters, then gave the story to my husband and daughter to read.  (I also read it out loud to my boys.)  After hearing their feedback, I revised again.  My friend Katy read that version of my story twice -- once to herself and then out loud to her parents.  Her many insights led to version 4 of my manuscript.

My friend Tara read that version, and offered encouragement of her own.  I read through it again (I couldn't even tell you how many times I've read through the whole thing), and realized that the beginning of my story still wasn't strong enough.  I'd re-written the beginning with every new version, but it still needed work.  After chopping the first couple of (short) chapters out last month, I decided that Kyra's Secret was finally ready for a professional in the business to read.

In the past, I've always sent my picture book manuscripts directly to publishers.  I've had no luck whatsoever going that route.  As I mentioned in a post last month, more and more publishers are only looking at agented material these days. I've decided, then, to try finding an agent to represent me.

I started by reading a few books about literary agents and how to go about acquiring one.  I made a list of the agents who represent new authors of middle grade fantasy.  I learned what I could about those agents, and chose a few to start with, agents who seemed to be the best "fit" for me.  I also learned about writing queries, finding a lot of useful information on two websites in particular, AgentQuery and Query Shark. Then I tried writing my own.

After spending a couple of weeks working on a query for my manuscript, I've come to the conclusion that it's easier to write an entire novel than a one-page query!  Trying to describe my story in two short paragraphs -- making it interesting without giving too much away, so that an agent will WANT to read Kyra's Secret -- is agonizingly difficult.

At least twenty drafts later, I was finally satisfied with my query.  I printed it out, signed it, and stuck in in an envelope along with another envelope, self-addressed and stamped, for the reply.  Then, fingers crossed, I sent it off to the first agent on my list.  That was on Tuesday.  Now I wait.  And hope.

I know that the chances of finding an agent willing to represent me on my very first try are quite low.  Of course, the chances that a magazine would publish the very first thing I ever submitted were also quite low, and I managed to beat those odds.  It could happen again.  And, if it doesn't, I still have a long list of other agents to try....