Wednesday, February 22, 2012

An SAT with Our Own Sophie Perinot

by Mindy McGinnis

Today is an exciting day for me here at From the Write Angle as I get to pick the brain of our own Sophie Perinot. On my personal blog, Writer, Writer Pants on Fire, I do a series of interviews titled the SAT (Successful Author Talk) in which my participants tell us about their writing process, agent hunt, and publication journey. Sophie is spilling it here on FTWA today, and she graciously agreed to pull double duty and tell us about her submission process as well. The SHIT (Submission Hell, It's True) is posted over on Writer, Writer.

Sophie Perinot writes historical fiction. Ms. Perinot has both a BA in History and a law degree. She left the practice of law to pursue artistic interests, including writing. As someone who studied French abroad and a devotee of Alexandre Dumas, French history was a logical starting point. Her debut novel, The Sister Queens, will be released by NAL on March 6th 2012. Set in 13th century France and England, The Sister Queens weaves the captivating story of medieval sisters, Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence, who both became queens - their lifelong friendship, their rivalry, and their reigns

Writing Process:
BBC: Are you a Planner or Pantster?

SP: I am a procrastinator. No wait, that wasn’t on the list. I am a hybrid.

As a writer of historical fiction research is a huge part of what I do, and what is research if not a type of plot-planning? In order to research effectively I need to know upfront who I am writing about, what time period he/she is living in, what historical figures he/she will come in contact with, and what historical events are germane to my plot. That means thinking ahead and planning the general narrative arc of my books.

When it comes to actually composing my manuscript however, I am a bit of a Pantster. By the time I sit down to write I’ve steeped myself in my research notes with a goal of absorbing as many details as I can so that as I am writing scenes and dialogue the historical elements flow right out with my words and integrate themselves into the story. I do not use any sort of detailed plot outline. I have a timeline, sure. I know what my plot climax is. I have some definite ideas about how I am going to get there. But once my characters come to life they like to take charge. They very often say and do things I don’t expect—even things that are in opposition to what I had planned for them.

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

I haven’t written enough novels to have a “typical” timeframe yet. I can say I am not a quick-first-draft person (you know the type who—miraculously from my point of view—opens the floodgates and has a completed first draft in a month or two). On the other hand, I get the impression I do far fewer rounds of edits than a lot of writers. So I guess my style could be dubbed “ponderous perfectionist.” It may take me a while to finish a draft but my first draft is not something I wouldn’t be embarrassed to show my agent.

BBC: Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi tasker?

SP: One at a time. And I need a break between projects. I have to purge the characters from one book from my head and find the voices of my new characters. Besides, I don’t want to inadvertently muddle my history. For example, The Sister Queens is set in the 13th century but my current wip is set in the 16th century. If I tried to work on both at once the odds of someone eating, riding, saying, or wearing something inappropriate would go way up (farthingales in the 13th century – I think not!)

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

SP: I cheated with my first book. I didn’t sit down and write it (and I do think that blank computer screen would have been intimidating). I dictated it (yes the whole thing) into a hand held tape recorder. I honestly think that made the whole process less frightening. I was just telling a story. God knows I love to talk.

When I started The Sister Queens I also began by dictating. But I soon realized that my schedule for finishing the manuscript really didn’t allow time to record and then transcribe the entire book. So I transcribed what I had and then went on from there. That was an adjustment.

No matter how many books we have under our belts or how we string together the words that become those books we all have terrifying moments. You know the ones I mean—when the ideas just don’t come. I have to remind myself that they will, probably at the least opportune time (like while I am in the shower). When they do (when a scene comes to me suddenly, all shiny and nearly fully formed), I will do just about anything to get it down before it escapes. I once pulled to the side of the road and wrote a scene a Starbucks napkin because that was all I could find in my car.

BBC: How many trunked books (if any) did you have before you were agented?

SP: None. I know that’s not what people (and by people I mean writers) want to hear but it’s the truth. But folks should bear in mind that while the first manuscript I queried secured my wonderful agent it did not sell. So it is trunked now, and my second manuscript is ready to launch as The Sister Queens.

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

SP: Quit, no. Shelved, yes. Timing is a huge part of this business. You need to have the right manuscript at the right time. I had to accept that my first manuscript really wasn’t “debut novel” material, but I still hope to see it resurrected later in my career.

Querying and Agent Hunt Process:
BBC: Who is your agent and how did you get that "Yes!" out of them?

SP: I want to say up front that no agents were hurt in the making of my debut, lol. But seriously, my agent is Jacques de Spoelberch a long-time industry veteran, and a true gentleman (something we writers of historical fiction particularly appreciate). I attracted his interest with an old-fashioned, printed on paper (good paper) snail-mail query. I can still remember getting the note from Jacques requesting my full (also by snail mail). After he read it, we were fortunate to be able have lunch together in the city and discuss his reactions to and ideas for my work. It was kismet. By the end of the meal I had representation.

BBC: How long did you query before landing your agent?

SP: I sent 57 queries. The first couple of rounds were actually wasted (though I didn’t know that at the time) because my letter was flawed.

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

SP: When you think your query (or your manuscript for that matter) is ready it’s probably not. Don’t let your enthusiasm for your manuscript and your excitement over actually finishing it drive the boat – patience, self-control and discipline are your friends. Let everything sit. Get feedback. Let that feedback percolate. I am a big fan of AgentQueryConnect as a source of both writer-to-writer support and query critiques.

And while you are polishing that letter and otherwise preparing to query, use the time to learn about the business of publishing so that later -- when the happy day arrives and you have an agent and a book contract – the facts of life (e.g. authors need to be involved in marketing and promotion) and even simple definitions (do you know the difference between line and copy edits? Do you know what it means to “earn out”) won’t stop you in your tracks. If you haven’t taken the time to learn about the business than you shouldn’t be querying, no matter how ready your query letter is.

On Being Published:
BBC: How did that feel, the first time you saw your book for sale?

SP: I won’t have the chance to see The Sister Queens for sale in the “real world” for a few weeks, but judging by how I felt (and acted) when it was first listed for pre-order in the virtual world I predict I will be overwhelmed and l likely do something stupid (like race around the local Barnes and Noble holding a copy while chirping “I wrote this.”) God I hope not.

BBC: How much input do you have on cover art?

SP: I’ve blogged on this. Bottom line, if you want to publish with a major house you have to stop thinking of your book as solely yours. Working with a major house is a collaboration. You get the final say on some issues but not, unless you are a veteran writer and NYT bestseller, your cover.
I am NOT saying that good publishers don’t seek author input on their cover. My editor asked me for examples of existing covers that I loved as well as examples of covers I didn’t like. She encouraged me to explain why I felt as I did. She also asked me to collect images from art imbued with the feeling I wanted my cover to have, and to submit descriptions and pictures of what my 13th century sisters might have worn.

I am also NOT complaining about the state of things. I am not sure my having complete/sole control over my cover would have been a good thing. Covers aren’t just “ooo pretty,” they are sales tools, and the truth is I am not in a position to predict what will catch the eye of the average book buyer. I am not trained to do that. The folks in my publisher’s art and design departments, on the other hand, ARE in a position to predict what will make a reader reach out and lift The Sister Queens off a table full of books all looking for a home. They have been designing covers for years. That’s why design departments and not authors get the final say over what book covers looks like, and why that fact doesn’t bother me in the least.

BBC: What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?

SP: Lots of things have surprised me, pleasantly. For example:

• As I began querying I kept hearing, “you can’t find an agent without connections,” and “publishers aren’t buying books from unknown authors anymore.” Then I got an agent (without connections) and sold a book (without being a celebrity). And it’s not because I am an exception or I am so great – I currently know more than two dozen debut authors with books coming out in the next twelve to eighteen months and expect to hear good news from several more writer friends soon. The fact is, you need to be a realist if you want to be a writer but there is no room for pessimism. Deals do happen, so get busy.

• I also heard, “publishers don’t edit anymore,” and then I was acquired by my marvelous editor and she gave me so much valuable input. I honestly believe The Sister Queens is much improved as a result of our collaboration.

• I’ve also been surprised how willing and eager the veteran author community is to embrace newbies. Authors who I consider household-names in my genre have gone out of their way to offer me advice on the publication process. They’ve let me ask them really stupid questions. And they have publically supported my book. The collegiality among writers is one of the great perks of this business.

Social Networking and Marketing:
BBC: How much of your own marketing do you? Do you have a blog / site / Twitter?

SP: The days of the recluse writer (or at least the successful recluse author) are over. You can insist your job as an author is just to write the best book possible and let the chips fall where they may, but there is a good chance you aren’t going to like where those chips land. Now I accept absolutely that being good at writing and being a brilliant promoter are different skill sets. I also accept that some good writers are not good at promoting and some mediocre writers excel at it. But there is absolutely no point in deploring the realities of the situation – authors have to participate in the marketing and promotion of their books. The best advice I got from veteran author friends? Don’t try to do everything (you do need time to write more books). Rather, do what you enjoy (if you love to blog, do it) and leave what you don’t (hate facebook? Then stay off it).

Personally, I am a bit of an extrovert so I have a personal blog and also participate in our fantastic group blog here at From the Write Angle. I also tweet, have an author page on facebook and another facebook page specifically for The Sister Queens.

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

SP: I know “platform” is a word with big buzz these days (I wish my novel had that much buzz) but honestly – here comes the sacrilegious part – I believe it always has been and continues to be much more important in non-fiction than fiction.

I do think it is important to extend yourself and actively become a “value added” part of social media communities. But from my point of view that is not the same as building a platform, it’s just old-fashioned networking gone digital. You should be networking the minute you start writing. And you need to make sure you are genuine in your efforts – that you are connecting with people, supporting people, contributing to dialogue, not just shilling a product.

BBC: Do you think social media helps build your readership?

SP: Absolutely. The Sister Queens has already (pre-release) been featured on a number of historical fiction blogs and made some “most looked forward to in 2012” lists. I can’t imagine that would have happened without twitter, facebook, gracious bloggers, etc. Heck, in the pre-social media era it is hard for me to imagine that anyone outside a fifty-mile radius of where I live (with the exception of family and friends on my Christmas card list) would even know my book existed until it showed up on a shelf somewhere. Yet right this minute, right on this blog, someone is learning about my novel for the first time by reading this post.

8 comments:

Jean Oram said...

Our little ol' public library in Alberta, Canada already had you on pre-order when I went in to ask them to order it for their collection. I think catalogues are amazing for that--plus you have that awesome eye-catching and rare green on your cover. I think that catches a lot of eyes.

Nice to hear more behind the scenes on what it took you to get to soon-to-be published, Sophie. And thanks Mindy for sharing your interview with us.

Lesson to be learned here--no excuses get off your butt and go forth brave writers!! ;)

Jemi Fraser said...

Really interesting interview ladies. There are so many steps in getting a book published these days - it's nice to have someone on the 'inside' to give us such great advice! Thanks :)

Lydia Netzer said...

Cool -- I've always wondered about writers who dictate their books -- is there someone in particular you imagine speaking to? Or who do you think of when you're talking?

Seré Prince Halverson said...

Fascinating interview! Can't wait to read The Sister Queens! And I wonder about the dictation process, too. Perhaps it's more natural for you because of your law background?

Caterina T said...

That's awesome to hear you dictate your book. I've never heard of anyone doing that before.

Mindy McGinnis said...

Jean - Hooray for omniscient Canadian librarians, eh? :)

Jemi - Having read Sophie's awesome book, I can add that it's SO much fun to read a book, then email the author and tell them you loved it - and then she answers you cause she's your bud!

Caterina - Leave it to Sophie to find a new approach.

Sophie Perinot said...

Regarding dictation – I think it particularly helps with dialogue because when you say something is just naturally sounds like something someone would say (if that makes sense). I don’t imagine anyone in particular I just talk – I’ve been talking to myself for years so I don’t worry much about appearances. The other advantage to dictation – when I have the time for it – I tend to do a “first edit” while I am transcribing, so the completed first draft is pretty darn neat if I do say so myself. I hope to have a big enough time window somewhere down the line to dictate a book again.

Christopher Hudson said...

You had me at 'procrastinator' ... anyway, I always admire authors of historical fiction ... a genre I like ... but it takes way more research than this dyslexic, procrastinator can handle.