Now that her contract is signed and she’s officially an agented writer, I asked Emily Winslow to share her experience of writing her book, finding an agent, and figuring out where to go from there. Here’s what she had to say.
What do you do for a living?
I trained as an actress and then as a museum curator. I worked with text-to-speech synthesis (teaching computers to talk) at a research company, and I worked at an Internet startup in the late nineties—that’s a piece of history right there, being part of that whole tech bubble thing. All the while I was also writing.
When I married, I quit my day job to write full time. I had success writing regularly for one of my favorite magazines, and I wrote personal things too: two poetry collections and some personal essays, which were very good, I think, but those are not really marketable forms. After our second child was born and we’d completed a complicated move from the States to England, I was ready to tackle a novel.
What’s your writing background?
I’ve never trained as a writer, but acting and exhibit design are both forms of storytelling. So my education did set me up well for writing, even without teaching me writing per se. As for learning to use words well, nothing beats reading.
How did you start this book?
Moving to Cambridge, England, was a wonderful inspiration to me, so I set my story there. There are places I love in America, but I find them difficult to describe, because they’re so familiar to me. Being someplace strange to me made words easier to find.
I chose characters who would let me explore that inspiration: Americans, giddy over the accents and gawking at the architecture. And locals, so full of the curiosity and giftedness that typify Cambridge.
I interviewed people who fascinate me. One of my characters had gone slowly blind as a child, something I was able to discuss in depth with a friend who had experienced that herself. I’d never have asked her such probing questions personally, but researching the novel gave me permission.
Then I put these characters in an awkward position: one of them disappears. That was my starting point.
How did you see this book through?
I “met” Kristen in the comments columns of a popular blog. I respected her opinions. When the first page of my book was critiqued there, she commented favorably. I followed up by checking out her blog. I noticed she’s a freelance editor and liked what I saw.
This was my situation: the baby was still waking up twice a night. I was exhausted. I was committed to my book, and knew some external feedback would help with discipline. I wanted to make it easy for me to keep my promises to myself.
I hired Kristen to critique my book, one section at a time. We set up a schedule of deadlines. The bulk of her feedback was pinpointing anything unclear/awkward, and anything she adored. This was perfect for me. I was using five narrators in overlapping time periods, putting much faith in my future readers. With Kristen’s assurance that my time-juggling was “working,” I was able to surge ahead with confidence.
After I’d completed the manuscript, I holed up in a farmhouse cottage in Devon for a week to revise. That’s where Kristen’s negative notes came in handy: with her notes (and my own notes, looking back at the start of the book from the perspective of its ending), I was able to target my revisions efficiently.
Lastly, my beta readers reviewed this revised version. I had a wonderful mix of readers: Americans to tell me where my British references were unclear, Brits to tell me when they didn’t understand something my American characters said, and both a Cambridge city local and a Cambridge University graduate to confirm my accuracy.
How did you pinpoint agents to submit it to?
Once I felt the manuscript was fully ready, I used AgentQuery.com to find agents who represent both mystery and literary. Then I visited all the agents’ own websites (and googled), to get a feel for who would be a good match.
What kind of response did you receive?
I’m really glad that I researched the query process before I began. The many excellent agent blogs out there taught me that the ubiquitous form letter rejection phrase “not right for me” really can mean just that. Sure they use it to reject writing they think is terrible, but they also use it to reject good writing that’s just not what they’re looking for right now. That kept my confidence up when I received rejections. Then I queried Cameron McClure at Donald Maass (by email, with the first five pages pasted in, as per their guidelines). A week later she requested the full, and a month later she offered representation.
How did you decide to go with Cameron?
First of all, the agency is first rate, obviously. As for Cameron herself, I’d queried her in particular because she was looking for literary mystery. As far as I could tell, she hadn’t sold in that genre yet, but it was clear in her bio and from other sources that that was a new direction she was really excited about. That excited me, in a get-in-on-the-ground-floor kind of way. Once she asked for the full, I researched further. She has a book review blog, and I really liked the way she thinks about what she reads. All I needed to know then was what she thought of my book. When she emailed after reading the full, her comments showed that she really “got it.” She saw in the book what I see. And it turns out that she’s a terrific person, too. When she made “the call,” we talked for two hours.
One of the reasons I trust her is because she recognizes this book’s fragile balance between genres, and how those labels may affect a reader. The plot makes it a “mystery” (or, as the British classify it, “crime”), but the unusual structure tips it over toward straightforward “literary.” It needs to be positioned in such a way that the reader will get the right idea about what to expect.
Is there a crime that gets solved in the end? You bet. And on the way there, the book winds through several narrators, at points visiting the same or concurrent events from their unique points of view. This is really the only way I can imagine this story being told—the structure is absolutely necessary to both the plot and the point. But it is unusual, and it’s important that the reader, whether it’s an editor now or a browser in a bookstore later, isn’t primed for something more traditionally structured by use of the term “mystery.” It’s a delicate situation.
How long between your first agent submission and your offer from Cameron?
The whole process, from researching agents to representation, was about three months.
How do things stand now?
I’m doing some minor rewriting and polishing in a few spots based on my agent’s suggestions in preparation for the “submission to publishers” phase. This is theoretically a very exciting time for a writer. But, really, once it goes out, there won’t be much for me to do. So I’ll get to work on the next book.