Jennifer Sommersby On Planning Vs. Pantsing

Today’s guest for the SAT (Successful Author Talk) is Jennifer Sommersby author of SLEIGHT, releasing April 24th from SkyPony Press. Jennifer is a writer, copy/line editor, bibliophile, and mom of four living in the Great White North.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

I used to be a devoted pantser. Don’t tell me what to do! I’m a writer with free will! But then I wrote a book that was a hot mess and the editor working on it had me start from scratch—by writing an OUTLINE. Egad! I ended up writing several detailed outlines, around 40-45 pages each, and when we finally settled on one that felt right, only then was I green-lit to start (re)writing the book. However, even that proved challenging because at about page 20 on the outline, the story diverged wildly and unexpectedly, so basically the remainder of the outline was useless.

I’ve since found a better system that works for me—a detailed synopsis. I try to write it like what you would read on the back cover of a novel, and then go into greater detail farther down the page. I aim for five to ten pages and cover major characters, central plot, subplots, secondary characters, major conflicts, the main character’s objective, and even dialogue and snippets of scenes I don’t want to forget. I’ve found the synopsis route to be awesome—I’m only spending about a week or so writing it, and that frees up plenty of time to tweak before I actually start writing the book. I can also show this to my agent or an interested editor if they’re asking about what other projects I have on the go.

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?

Depends on the project. I write romantic comedies for grownups under a pen name (Eliza Gordon), and while I am a meticulous researcher, I can write an Eliza book in four to six months, sometimes less if work and life don’t get in the way. SLEIGHT, however, well, she’s an anomaly. I wrote the first draft longhand over 360 nights sitting in my car at a local coffee shop (fueled by peppermint tea!); that was in 2009-2010. The book has gone through a grueling editing and rewriting process to reach the stage it’s at now. So, it’s not inaccurate to say this book has taken me eight years to write … But the truth is, there were 15 drafts written during that time, and many of those were rewritten starting from a blank page. I’m currently writing SLEIGHT’s sequel, SCHEME, and I’ve been working on this latest draft for five months. I still have a long way to go since it is VERY research intensive. Me and my big ideas. Oy.

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multitasker?

Definitely a multitasker. I have about five or six projects I’m putting words down for, even if they’re just one line or an idea as it occurs to me, and not all of these projects will necessarily turn into anything sellable. But remember, I also write under two names, in two very different genres/styles, and I’m not a rigid 2000-plus-words-a-day writer. I wish! 

Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?

Perfectionism. It’s been a lifelong plague that almost saw me flunk seventh grade algebra because I wasn’t turning in my homework—“But Mr. Reiland, I can’t turn it in because it’s not perfect!” Yeah, so as a writer, one of the reasons I’m so slow is because I’m also an obsessive self-editor and rewriter. I will go over and over a chapter until I think it’s in decent shape, and only then will I move on to the next chapter. So the fear that knocks me to my knees almost every time? Fear that it won’t be perfect. Which is ridiculous. Writer Anne Lamott says, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.” Reading her advice back in 2007 gave me permission to start writing shitty first drafts. Which I did.

How many trunked books did you have before you were agented?

Nothing finished! See above notes on perfectionism.

Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?

Yes. It sucks because I still love the idea, but the execution is proving too complicated. When I spend months thinking about a project and it presents me with an unsolvable problem that then spawns into five or more unsolvable problems, I know the project is begging to be abandoned.

Who is your agent and how did you get that “Yes!” out of them? 

In 2010 I started querying agents for SLEIGHT. I had a few requests for fulls but it didn’t get any further until I queried Dan Lazar, my DREAM agent, on Easter Sunday. He got back to me an hour later, asked for a full, and rejected me a week later. He graciously offered me several chances to edit and resubmit but ultimately passed. The abbreviated version of a rather long story: I self-published a version of SLEIGHT in 2011. It was only out for a few months, but reviews were great and sales weren’t terrible, so I emailed Dan and said HEY LOOK ARE YOU SURE YOU DON’T WANT THIS BOOK. He then referred me to the incredible in-house editor for Writers House, Genevieve Gagne-Hawes. Gen and I reworked SLEIGHT throughout 2011 and into 2012, and then in May 2012, Dan agreed to sign me. A week or so later, we got a pre-empt from HarperCollins Canada for a two-book deal. Woohoo! Recently I transferred to Dan’s junior agent, Victoria (Torie) Doherty-Munro, because I’m a hyperactive client with a lot of irons in the fire between the Sommersby books in development and then the Eliza Gordon books—Dan is extremely busy and Torie is young and hungry and has the space to help me develop some of these other ideas, so it’s a win-win all around. I get the best of both worlds!

How many queries did you send? (whichever you’re more comfortable answering)

I racked up 23 rejections before getting a yes from Dan. And as you read above, that was quite a long process.

Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?

PERSEVERE. And patience, my friend! Be open to the constructive criticisms coming at you from potential agents—seriously, a good agent knows the business and if they’re telling you your protagonist isn’t believable or the plot is flimsy, they’re not being mean. They’re telling you this because the story is undercooked. The hardest lesson I’ve learned so far—this business isn’t personal. Because it IS a business. They’re not rejecting YOU; they are rejecting the manuscript based on flaws that may or may not be fixable. But being bullheaded and inflexible will get you nowhere.

Never be afraid to dive back in and fix what you can. Hire a trustworthy editor—but vet them first! Don’t hire your neighbor because she’s good with commas. I know very few agents will go that extra mile to provide editorial feedback until they’ve signed you (they are absolutely swamped all the time), but if you get a request for a partial or full and the agent still rejects the manuscript, if they offer actionable advice, strongly consider taking it and look at fixing whatever isn’t working.

How did it feel the first time you saw your book for sale?

Euphoria. And pride. It was very emotional, actually. This book has taken its toll on my mental health—not gonna lie—so to see fifty copies sitting there on the display shelf at the front of the store where people can pick her up and hug her and then take her home? Pretty bloody great. And at the launch-day signing, I actually started crying when I got to my table and saw Chapters Indigo had one of those six-foot banners they make for their signing guests—only this one had MY name and MY book on it. It was my Velveteen Rabbit moment, and I was overcome. It’s the little things, you know?

How much input do you have on cover art?

For the HarperCollins Canada version, I didn’t have any input until they sent me the first draft of the artwork—and it was terrific, so my only input was YES I LOVE IT IT’S PERFECT. It’s VERY elegant. For the Sky Pony Press (US) version, I was a lot more involved with the process, which was also very cool—Alison Weiss, my editor, gave Dan and me a lot of room for feedback. Sky Pony worked with Sarah J. Coleman (InkyMole on Instagram—follow her!), and it was fantastic to see our suggested changes happen so quickly. (And the cover is filled with Easter eggs!) The end results of both versions make me cry all the happy tears. It’s just surreal.

What’s something you learned from the process that surprised you?

How much marketing authors (especially debut authors with no track record yet) have to do on their own. Yikes! 

How much of your own marketing do you? 

I do a ton of my own marketing. The lion’s share, in fact. I’m active on social media—primarily Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. My website is pretty basic but it provides people with a place to go to find necessary links. I had a blog for years but I’m a lazy blogger, so it’s sort of hiding out there in the ether right now, long ignored. Sorry, little blog. I also make and order my own bookmarks, pens, postcards, and other marketing collateral (yup, I pay for it) and I do as many giveaways as I can afford. (Postage from Canada is insanely expensive.) I use Canva and Photoshop Elements for social media graphics, and we’re a family of photographers so if I can’t find an image I want on a stock site, one of us can probably shoot it. Also, my husband works in film and for SLEIGHT, we’ve made an incredible book trailer that I hope folks will love.

I run the occasional Facebook ad, but I haven’t found those to be necessarily worth the cost. Also, I still believe very strongly in word of mouth, so I arrange book signings with local bookstores—I’ve spent years cultivating my relationships with the booksellers—and I do hire a blog tour company to get the books into the hands of bloggers so they can help with the blast process.

I have a newsletter for Eliza Gordon but not for Jenn Sommersby—I know the marketing gurus tout the amazing strength a newsletter can provide for an author but I haven’t found that to be super true for me yet. A friend who runs her own author-focused marketing business (www.JulieInk.com—tell her Jenn sent you!) often reminds me that I need to be doing more frequent newsletters, but I’m still working on that bit. It’s a tough balance! 

When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?

I don’t think it hurts to be building as soon as you decide that you want to be writing stories the world will eventually see. I started engaging on Twitter pretty heavily back in 2011 when the first self-published version of SLEIGHT was out (the version with the redhead on the cover—if you’re reading that obsolete version, it’s either pirated or one of the few paperbacks still floating around Amazon). I don’t have huge followings on Twitter or Facebook (damn algorithms!) or even Instagram but slowly, slowly, I am building. 

On social, I share books I’ve bought and what I’m reading, helpful tips for writers, funny memes, whatever soundtracks I’m listening to, pictures of my very spoiled cat, etc. I try to engage with readers instead of just scream BUY MY BOOKS. And because SLEIGHT has had such an unusually long journey to publication, I’ve been hesitant about focusing too much time on building the platform as I didn’t know until mid 2017 what to tell people when they asked about when the book would be coming out. In hindsight, this was a mistake. Find a way to engage people about your world as a writer—it doesn’t just have to be about your book that may or may not ever be published. 

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

I don’t know how I would find a readership without social media! I rely heavily on friends I’ve made online, the bloggers, the readers who love books—without social media, it would be me sitting alone in my office with my cat and my Superman collection, hoping someone will find my books. I’ll forever be grateful to the nerds who understand how to write the code that enables me to reach an entire world of amazing readers and booklovers!