Hey, look--it’s another installment of “Agent-Author Chat”! (Two interviews in two weeks? I’m on a roll!) Today’s interview features Michelle Andelman of Regal Literary and one of my good friends and critique partners, Liesl Shurtliff.
Here’s a quick reminder about how this will work: Ms. Shurtliff
will share her query with us, the actual query she sent to Ms. Andelman, and
then she’ll chat a bit about how she developed it and what advice she has for
fellow writers. Then Ms. Andelman will tell us what she liked about the
query--and the manuscript itself--and share some
query-writing tips with us.
Ms. Shurtliff's query and responses will appear in orange, Ms. Andelman's in blue.
Ms. Shurtliff’s Query
Rump is a lousy name, but it’s even worse when your name is your destiny.
Rump’s destiny really stinks. Because his mother only spoke aloud part of his
name before she died, Rump is only part of a person. He is short, skinny, and
apparently an idiot, because he thinks the world is round when everyone in the
village says it’s flat.
When Rump discovers his mother’s old magic of spinning gold,
he thinks his destiny is golden, until the greedy miller manipulates Rump into bringing
the gold to him. Only then does Rump realize that the same magic that allows
him to spin the gold also binds him to take whatever others will offer him in
exchange for the gold. He fears his half-spoken name has something to do with
Then the miller boasts to the king that his only daughter, Opal,
is the one who spins the gold. Rump thinks he’ll be a hero if he helps Opal,
but he gets in over his head when Opal makes a foolish bargain: she promises
Rump her first-born child. On a quest to be free of the miller’s greed and the
binding bargains, Rump learns of rumpel, magic that traps you, and of stiltskins,
magic that frees you. He’s got the trapped part down. If only he could find a
stiltskin. If only he knew his whole name.
RUMP, a middle-grade retelling of Rumpelstiltskin from his own
quirky point-of-view, is complete at 58,000 words. I read that you prefer quirky
and charming middle-grade, so I hope this will interest you. I have published
stories and articles in Guideposts Sweet
16, Hopscotch for Girls, and The Friend. I review books for Deseret
News and I’m an active member of SCBWI since 2008.
Thank you for your time.
KV: Ms. Shurtliff, how did you first come up with the idea
LS: I was actually brainstorming another fairytale when I
got the idea. I was thinking about the importance of names and how it would be
really interesting to create a fairytale world where a person's name determined
their destiny. Instantly my mind gravitated to the Rumpelstiltskin tale,
because if there ever was a story where a name was important, it was that one.
And because I have a totally immature love of potty humor, I thought it would
be funny to shorten his name to Rump. I smiled instantly. What kind of a
destiny would someone called Rump have? A totally stinky one! The name and
destiny were the seeds of my story and it grew from there. It was a lot of fun!
KV: Tell us a little bit about your query-writing process.
Did you work on it here and there as you were writing the manuscript, or
before, or after? How many times did you revise it? And how did you decide what
order to put things in?
LS: I did write the query here and there as I wrote my
manuscript. To me a query is a sort of compass. If you can’t coherently boil
down the larger parts of your book in 250 words then it might be an indication
that you have a problem with your overall story, like you have no idea what
it’s about. So the query helped me stay on track and focused.
I revised my pitch paragraph dozens of times as I revised my
novel and got it ready for submission. I often revised what characters and plot
points were necessary in the query and tried to make it as clear and tight as
As far as the order, I'm a fairly linear person, so I just
started with the beginning and moved until I reached the major tipping point
where I hoped an agent would ask to read more.
KV: What was the hardest thing about writing your query?
What was the easiest?
LS: I think the hardest thing (or at least most labor
intensive) was really personalizing my query to each agents’ particular tastes.
There are varying ideas about what makes a good query. Some want you to go
right into the pitch, others prefer a bit of introduction. Some want book
comparisons, others find that presumptuous. Most want you to end the query with
a cliffhanger, but I did find one agent who wanted to know the resolution in
the query. Some want no sample page, others want one, five, ten, three
chapters, the whole thing plus a synopsis and a bio and the name of your dog.
It's an exhausting amount of research, but I think it's
important to show them that you've taken the time to learn about them and give
them what they want. Otherwise, how can we expect them to take our work
The easiest part was writing the first couple of lines. I
know this is tooting my own horn, but it still makes me laugh.
KV: Ms. Andelman, when you first read Ms. Shurtliff’s query,
what caught your attention?
MA: I was caught by the mix of humor and heart that was
evident in the query itself--Liesl did a terrific job of crafting a query
letter that demonstrated just how strong and lively a writer she is, and what’s
more, a query letter whose tone perfectly captured that of the project.
Rump is a little boy with at once a wise yet humorous
perspective. There’s tenderness yet also a bold, laugh-out-loud quality to his
voice, and the way he sees both the world and himself. From reading Liesl’s
query alone, I was able to sense that about her protagonist--and sense that
she’d drive him through a truly extraordinary and emotional character arc, even
alongside the adventure she was going to send him on. I only hoped the pages
would bear that out! I was so eager to see; truly, I had such genuine fun
reading the query that I couldn’t wait to dip into the pages! Liesl says just
above that her query made her laugh--me too!
KV: Obviously, the manuscript met--or exceeded--your
expectations. What did you love about RUMP?
MA: I’m drawn to fairytale and folktale retellings in
theory, but in practice I’m selective about what I take on in this vein. RUMP
won me immediately over! The manuscript made it evident how much Liesl loves
and knows the fairytale she’s giving a fresh spin, and how much she loves and
knows fairytales in general.
RUMP has strong roots in traditional fairytale world building
and storytelling. There are sludge-slurping trolls, aunts who are witches, and
pixies with gold fever. Yet it also boldly reinvented the wheel, recasting the
reviled legendary character of Rumpelstiltskin as a very young boy you can’t
help but feel for--and whose humor, magically, even within the context of the
traditional fairytale story world Liesl created (one that’s all her own, yet
has a timeless feel), felt perfectly contemporary. There’s a bold,
irrepressible boy humor in RUMP that called to mind SHREK, which I totally
love, and which I feel also--like RUMP--pays homage to fairytale tradition
while irreverently dosing it with a humor I loved, and which I think kid
readers today will love.
KV: Just have to jump in here and say that I love the Shrek
comparison! It’s so apt! And it's so cool to hear what an agent has to
say about a manuscript I’ve actually read. Okay, back to the interview…
How quickly did you read Ms. Shurtliff’s manuscript? Is that
pretty typical of your response times on requested material, or do those vary?
MA: I just looked back at my records. There were just 14
business days that passed between the day I received Liesl’s full manuscript (I
did request the full upfront, after reviewing her paper query with ten pages of
writing attached) and the day I wrote to let her know I was in love with RUMP,
and wanted to schedule a phone conversation for the next day (during which I
offered her representation).
My response times on requested material, admittedly, can
vary. I can take longer especially in cases where a full read finds me sitting
on the fence, loving elements but not feeling the work’s quite coherent enough
yet, so I must think about what specific editorial work I might suggest an
author and I do together to get a submission ready for editors’ eyes.
Or I can take longer if I love a full manuscript but worry
about its marketability. In that case, sometimes I need to take extra time to
decide if I love it enough to commit to it, even if I feel it could be a tough
sale. Or, I need to give extra thought as to a placement strategy--that’s my
way of shoring up my confidence that I can successfully find a home for it.
Of course, it’s loveliest to read a submitted manuscript
and, as I am reading, clearly see what editorial work I’ll recommend and what my
placement strategy will be--and, by the end of my read, be feeling that warm
& fuzzy “I-am-in-love, I-want-to-represent-this-author,
I-know-exactly-which-editors-will-flip-for-this-like-I-have” glow. That’s not
the case with every submission I take on--some I love, but need a lot of
development; some I love, but raise market questions that I need to answer
first; but some come along that, for me, feel like no-brainers. I love it, it’s
in great shape, and I know just how I’ll go about placing it. My response time
is speedy when that’s the case and that was totally the case with RUMP.
KV: Ms. Shurtliff, what tips do you have for fellow writers
as they work on their queries?
LS: Do your homework on both queries and agents. Read as
many queries as you can and figure out why they work or don’t work. (I highly
recommend Query Shark.) Have a few people read your query who have not read
your book to make sure the query makes sense. If you have to explain any point
at all, that’s a red flag.
Beyond that, don't obsess over it! Queries are important but
your book is more important. Put the big time into the real baby.
KV: Same question to you, Ms. Andelman. What query-writing
suggestions do you have?
MA: The best query advice I have is not to query too soon!
Give yourself time to get the manuscript right--I think Liesl’s final tip above
is totally on-point. There’s no sense in sweating a query for a book that isn’t
as ready--as developed, as polished--as you are able to get it.
That said, once you’re ready, I recommend drafting a concise
query that doesn’t summarize the plot in step-by-step fashion but instead moves
us through your story’s major movements and gives us a sense for how your
characters arc. It’s so important, I think, to highlight in a query an
emotional throughline for your story or protagonist--really, I don’t see enough
queries that do. It’s the emotional arc (that runs alongside your story arc)
that hooks me in a query, and which makes me want to read the book.
KV: Any last words of advice or encouragement you’d like to
share with us?
LS: Focus on your craft and give yourself time and space to
grow as a writer. Getting an agent and a book deal (though very exciting and
validating) are not the grand prize of writing. The goal is to write wonderful
stories that you love and reach the audience who will love them as well. So
keep that in mind when you’re biting your nails over a query letter.
Wow, wow, wow! Thank you, ladies, for these wonderful thoughts.
I, too, thought Ms. Shurtliff’s suggestion about focusing more on the book and
less on the query was spot-on, and Ms. Andelman’s insights into her manuscript-reading thought process were so informative.
As I announced a few months ago, RUMP recently sold to Knopf/Random
House, so the rest of you will be able to read RUMP for yourselves in the
spring of 2013! Until then, this interview will have to tide you over:)