Today’s guest for the SAT (Successful Author Talk) is Sarah Henning, who has worked for The Palm Beach Post, The Kansas City Star and The Associated Press, among others. Her debut, SEA WITCH, releases July 31st from Katherine Tegen Books.
Are you a Planner or Pantster?
I’ve always said I’m a decent hybrid of the two. I generally start with plot points that are pretty spread out and then allow my gut take over from there. I’ve found that my gut then surprises me with things I didn’t see coming between plot points, and if I’m surprised, my reader will be too. That said, the more books I write, the more I can see the forest for the trees in what I’m setting up. This has lead to more rat-a-tat-tat plot points before I write, but I still let my gut lead the way and change my plans at will.
How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?
My first drafts generally take anywhere from three to five months, depending on how complicated the plot is and how busy I am in the rest of my life. I also consider my first drafts to be pretty fully formed, so I’ll typically only revise for a week or two after that before shipping it off to my agent.
Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi-tasker?
I used to be a one project a time type-of-gal but having a book deal has changed that. I’m always working on something while waiting to work on something else, it seems. I think it keeps me sane to have a project to come back to while navigating rounds of edits on something else.
Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?
Nope. I’ve always wanted to be a novelist. I spent most of my early career in newspapers as a reporter and copy editor, so I’m used to having to come up with something solid in a very short amount of time. This seems to translate to fiction writing in that I’m never wandering around a scene, trying to figure out what I’m doing. I also tend to revise a lot as I go because of my journalism background. I like having my “first” draft as close to final as possible.
How many trunked books did you have before you were agented?
I had two that I wrote as an adult (and countless that I wrote as a child) that won’t ever see the light of day. The third book snagged me an agent, but the fifth book was the one that sold first. Publishing is definitely a long-haul journey.
Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?
I have one that I didn’t finish and I think it’s just because I’m still not sure how to write it. I know what I want to do but not the best way to tell the story. I’ll figure it out, but for now, it’s just got to sit and marinate.
Who is your agent and how did you get that “Yes!” out of them?
My agent is the lovely Rachel Ekstrom of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency. She is rainbows and sunshine but a complete pit-bull when necessary. I was lucky enough to be a mentee in the very first year of Brenda Drake’s Pitch Wars contest. I received four offers as part of the contest and loved everyone I talked with, but Rachel just seemed to get my goals the most. She signed me for adult crime fiction but the first book we sold was a young adult fantasy—not every agent would’ve been down for such varied writing interests, but she has been, 100 percent.
How long did you query before landing your agent?
The first two trunked manuscripts didn’t really get off the ground. I had the oldest of my two kids after I wrote those and they just kind of sat there while I tried to figure out the whole parenting thing. When I was ready to query that third book, I only did one small round before being chosen for Pitch Wars.
Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?
Do your research—if you can afford it, a subscription to Publishers Marketplace is so invaluable in knowing what’s selling, to who and by who.
How much input do you have on cover art?
For SEA WITCH, I made a private Pinterest page with images of characters, places and symbols in the book and sent it to my editor at Katherine Tegen, the wonderful Maria Barbo. Maria has an MFA in painting and a fabulous eye and so I knew that wherever she went from there would be great. I didn’t worry a second. In the end, Maria and the Harper art department found this amazing artist named Anna Dittmann who drew the perfect cover art for it. PERFECT.
What’s something you learned from the process that surprised you?
I don’t think I really understood anything about the way rights worked before my deal. I mean, I knew enough that I could ask questions, but I didn’t understand how nuanced subrights could be. It’s one of those things where it’s hard to understand until you’re out of the hypothetical situation and into a real one, I think. Unless, of course, your day job is as a lawyer!
How much of your own marketing do you?
When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?
This is a trick question for me because I was a features reporter in my town before I ever got my agent. I covered food and even though it’s been years since I left the newspaper, I still get recognized at the grocery store by people who used to read my articles, columns and blogs. So, for me, I have a sort of weird tangential local platform. About a third of my Twitter followers can be attributed to my former life and the rest are writing-related.
Do you think social media helps build your readership?
I think it does. Honestly, after SEA WITCH’s cover was revealed on Twitter and Instagram, I had people from all over the world reaching out to me in a way that wouldn’t have happened without those two platforms. I also think Instagram is especially helpful in the YA book world because so many of our YA books are just SO BEAUTIFUL that people want to take pictures of them. I know I do and I know a lot of book people I follow do. And I think a well-done Instagram picture of your book’s cover can go a long way in helping it find an audience.