Client Spotlight is a feature on the blog to highlight the incredibly talented writers I work with. I ask them a few questions about their writing and querying process and then they get to turn the tables and pose a few questions to me. Today I'm talking with Rachael Garza.
Agent Asks Author
Tell us about your book!
Ruin and Refuge is a YA fantasy about refugee sisters who must use magic and their wits to escape a civil war and keep their dreams, and each other, alive. It’s about protecting the people you love and struggling against societies that don’t care whether you live or die. There’s magic and dragons, love and sacrifice, two timelines, two verb tenses, and a somewhat unreliable narrator. There’s also a high probability that it will make you cry.
It will most definitely make you cry. I can say that from experience!
What is your writing process like?
When I’m working on a new idea, I buy a notebook and just start brainstorming. I ask myself questions about the world and list all the possible answers until I find one I’m happy with. For fantasies, I also like to draw a map to get a feel for the physical constraints of the world and how that could interact with the plot. This early worldbuilding stage is a really fun time when anything is possible, but nothing is set in stone. Later, as I get deeper into the book, I’ll go back and rework bits of worldbuilding to better suit the needs of the actual story as it develops. Even my maps get redrafted!
I don’t outline extensively before starting to draft, but I do need to know the major story beats I’m planning to hit and usually I’ll have some ideas for other cool scenes I’m looking forward to writing. I’m not a big fan of first drafts, so I like to do them quickly without giving my inner editor a chance to worry about quality. The NaNoWriMo challenge is always good motivation for me to just power through and get that done, and luckily they have events three times a year, so I don’t have to wait for November. There’s also a great website called Write Track that has an adjustable word count tracker. I usually move over to Write Track once NaNo is over and I have to finish the rest of a draft.
Since they’re quick, my first drafts tend to be pretty sparse, but they get longer and longer as I edit and layer in more details and side stories. Editing is what I really enjoy about writing because it’s like working on a huge puzzle, moving lines or scenes around, cutting parts, adding parts, making all the ideas and threads fit together. I think Ruin and Refuge has been through five complete drafts so far, including one which was a major structural overhaul.
What was your experience in the query trenches?
This was my second time querying. A little over a year earlier, I’d queried my first novel, which had a good response rate but ultimately no offer. For that novel I only ended up querying about 25 agents before deciding I wasn’t happy with the book anymore and diving into a new one, which became Ruin and Refuge.
This time I started with a round of 12 agents, but other than an early form rejection it was just radio silence. (Which is funny to say because it was actually less than a month. At the time it felt like ages, though.) I was very worried about my query letter and not sure whether it was presenting my novel well, so I spent a few days writing a new version of it. I had just gotten to the point where I was satisfied with the new version and shared it with an online forum to critique when you emailed me.
It had only been about three weeks since I’d queried you, but because you’re usually so fast and because I could see online that you’d responded to other queries from around when I’d queried, I thought you were going to be a rejection. So I was very surprised to get that request and I was so relieved just to get a request at all. I sent you the full that evening and you wrote back saying you got it and that your usual reading time was about eight weeks.
I went to bed satisfied that things were back on track. I hadn’t lost my querying touch. When I woke up the next day, the first thing I saw was that you were suddenly following me on Twitter. I took that as a good sign, but I was still blown away when I finally checked my email and saw that you’d actually stayed up all night reading the book and wanted to talk. All I could think was that this was a lot sooner than eight weeks! I was not mentally prepared for that much excitement so soon!
Whenever time allows I try to sort my queries when they come in: Reject, Request, or Starred. Rejections and Requests get sorted more or less immediately (though sorting is not equivalent to sending a response! Depending on how my week is scheduled, those queries might sit in those folders until I have dedicated time blocked off to respond. And some months--like May--are busier than others!) Starred queries are ones that come in when I'm really, really busy and don't have time to read the full sample chapter, but something about the query has peaked my interest. I don't know enough yet to sort into the Rejection or Request folder, so I star them and come back to them later when I can evaluate them properly. That usually happens at the end of the month. Yours was a starred query, which gives some insight into the three week wait before the request came through!
Tell us about The Call!
Even though we didn’t talk until a few days after you emailed me, I was still in a state of disbelief. I have to be honest and admit that while I’ve always enjoyed writing, getting published was never a life-long dream for me like it is for so many authors. Even when I got serious about finishing my first book, it took me a long time to get comfortable with the idea of pursuing publication. I did all my research and worked hard at querying, but part of me still didn’t really believe anything would come of it. And that was okay.
So, basically, while I had some questions and knew what to do, emotionally I was totally unprepared for The Call. I’m a longtime listener to the Pub(lishing) Crawl podcast, so I was also a little star-struck hearing your voice on my phone, saying such lovely things about my book, instead of on the computer. Between the podcast, my querying research, and a few days of additional online stalking, I felt like I already knew you well. After hearing about your agenting philosophy and your ideas for how to make Ruin and Refuge stronger, I knew before we hung up that I was probably going to accept your offer.
This was the third Call I've made, so I was pretty comfortable during our conversation (over the moon excited and full of hope, for sure! But I felt like I'd found my groove and knew how to describe myself and the way I work, so that part was easier for me). But then a few days later you let me know you had a competing offer! And I was dead certain I was going to lose you. We went back and forth a few times that week and you had a lot of follow up questions (as you should! Writers: ASK QUESTIONS. ANY AGENT SHOULD BE MORE THAN HAPPY TO ANSWER THEM. And if not? Run). I did my best to give you thorough, nuanced answers and be as open and honest as I could. But my husband had to endure several days of me fretting that I was going to lose out on this incredible project. I was so, so surprised and overjoyed when you accepted my offer. I could not believe it.
Author Asks Agent
What was it about RUIN AND REFUGE that made you feel passionate enough to represent it? And in general, how do you know when you’re reading a submission that it’s something you want to represent?
As soon as I read the first chapter I knew that this book was different, and that I was going to fall in love with it. It's true that the worldbuilding in RUIN AND REFUGE--together with its magical conveniences that mirror our existing technology and the fictional parallels to real world crises--is unique and fascinating. But for me books are always about the characters, and I fell in love with yours. I fell in love with them, and was so moved by their story. And so impressed with you for giving them the space to breathe, to try, and to fail, and to feel a vast, honest range of emotion. You give your characters incredible emotional journeys and you treat those journeys with respect. I knew I had to represent this book, and any others that might follow. I just love the way you write.
And in general? It's cliché but it's true. When you know, you just know. If I can't stop thinking about a book, if it touched me deeply, if it delights me or lights me up or makes me feel something real. There's some kind of kinetic, magic moment. A jolt of electricity. And I just know: I need to be a part of bringing this book into the world.
When I was writing my query, I tried to be specific and avoid clichés. What are the most common clichés you find in queries?
Oh, there are many. "Everything will change!" is a really common one. It's easy to lapse into hyperbole because space is limited and you're trying to create tension. And I just wrote my first pitch letter and it was HARD! So I sympathize! But be specific whenever possible; that helps.
You’ve been an agent almost six months now, how has your style or routine changed now that you’re settling in?
Things are definitely different because now I have clients! Only three, so my list is by no means full. I'm still very much aggressively acquiring. But all three of my clients are active; I'm working to sell your books right now. That means editing, cultivating submission lists and strategies, writing pitches, touching base with editors and establishing new contacts, and so on. That stuff takes up so much time! I just sent out my first submission this past Monday, and I spent almost every single day of the month working almost exclusively on it in some respect or another. And then any free time I had was spent editing for my other clients, and then trying to get through my requested reading. I'm still responding to queries that were sent in April!
My days are now spent on client management and editor relationships. Evenings and weekends are for queries and reading. Once I get through this round of edits and subs things will be quiet on the client front and then I'll throw my energy into building my list again. A friend of mine who is also an agent once told me that the work flow will have a natural life cycle of taking on new clients, prepping those projects, selling those projects, then taking on new clients. I'm finding that to be true!
As a writer there are several other writers who’ve mentored me along the way. Do you have any mentors as an agent?
I've got so many publishing and agenting mentors, going back years and years! So many people have supported me and given me advice throughout my career and I'm immensely grateful to them all. At this stage the people I'm leaning on most are the other agents at D4EO--particularly Bob Diforio and Quressa Robinson. I'm also a member of a private group for young (in career, not necessarily age!) agents and it's been invaluable to have that resource to turn to for advice or encouragement or support.
I’ve been a long-time listener to your podcast. What other podcasts about writing or publishing would you recommend?
How Story Works from Chipperish Media's Lani Diane Rich
First Draft with Sarah Enni
Minorities in Publishing with Bev Rivero and Jenn Baker
Shipping and Handling with Jennifer Udden and Bridget Smith
88 Cups of Tea with Yin Chang
The Manuscript Academy Podcast
The Loft Literary Podcast
Growing up in Northern Virginia, Rachael Garza was the kind of kid who had to fold up her giant, hand-drawn fantasy maps every night before the family could eat dinner. She dreamed of careers in archaeology and diplomacy before finally finding her niche in education. She currently teaches ESL in Tennessee, advocating for children from immigrant families and helping them find their voices. Her career in TESOL also took her to Turkey, where she spent all of her free time exploring ancient ruins and drinking tea. She enjoys taking pictures of her cat, dissecting and crafting stories, all things miniature, and avoiding household chores. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram as @Rachael846.