Posted by: Diane Curran | October 1, 2009

Guest Post: Sara J. Henry: Discovering Steph Bowe


Today we welcome author Sara J. Henry to the We Love YA blog. Sara J. Henry played a major part in Steph’s search for an agent. In face, Sara is the one who suggested that Steph should query agents.  Here’s how it happened:

How did you first discover Steph and her blog?

I stumbled across it from another YA blog that reviewed a book I love, DUST OF 100 DOGS. At the time Steph’s blog featured a very funny, appealing photo with her standing on one leg in a boat on a lawn. And her writing was bright and funny and well informed.

I especially liked her “Complete List of Writing Failures” on June 25, and I so loved the July 21 entry “20 Things to Say” that I reposted it, noting This kid is an incredible writer and reader, and if I were an agent, I’d have my eye on her now.

What spurred you to encourage her to query literary agents in the US?

I read a lot of manuscripts, but none grabbed me like this one. I read it fast, hoping it wouldn’t collapse in the middle as many manuscripts do. It didn’t – okay, maybe the last half chapter. But the good parts were so good I had no doubt Steph could fix the parts that didn’t work. The characters were strong and quirky, with rich histories and an inner awareness that resonates with readers. And I simply loved her writing style.

I knew from reading the Call My Agent blog that it’s difficult to get an agent in Australia, and I know Michael Robotham, a Sydney author with a UK agent who does quite well. And I knew several good US agents who handle YA.

Steph is phenomenally talented – you can’t read her blog without seeing that – and I didn’t want her snapped up by a less-than-ethical or not-particularly-good agent. (I have heard horror stories.)

But I had no idea it would all move so quickly!

How important is the process of writers receiving critique of their work and revising? Do writers have to be flexible about their story and able to revise quickly?

I think writing is revision – it lifts your material from so-so to something terrific. You may think your novel is ready to go, but it’s likely several drafts away.

In 2008 I houseswapped with a couple in a Sydney suburb for five weeks, shortly after breaking my foot and having surgery – not quite the adventure I had planned! But it was a perfect time to learn to rewrite – at that point my manuscript was like a preliminary artist’s sketch. Most people write several novels before they produce a publishable one, but I was stubborn enough to stick to the first one. (This is Steph’s third.)

But if you don’t know how to process criticism or who to listen to, it can be overwhelming. I recently saw a chapter of a woman’s memoir before and after she’d consulted classmates and a teacher. The revised version was worse! Revising made her lose her natural voice – you could tell she was trying to make each of her readers happy. So find your voice and stick to it.

Find beta readers you trust. I had a variety – my primary and most trusted one read first and last, and all helped make it a better manuscript. Understand your story and know your characters. If suggestions are wrong for your characters, ignore them.

But revision makes the difference between being published and not being published.

What advice would you give to other young aspiring writers? (Or aspiring writers of all ages.)

Steph summarized it perfectly when she said You have to write, and write a lot, and you have to be willing to improve.

Read a lot. Join a writers group, online or in person. Get to a writers conference. Follow other writers on Twitter. I was inspired by Ray Bradbury’s ZEN IN THE ART OF WRITING and Stephen King’s ON WRITING. Follow good writing blogs. Join contests, like the Secret Agent contest that brought Steph to her agent, Ginger Clark.

Never let anyone tell you that you can’t, or that you’re too young. But realize that really good writing is hard work.

A lot of Australian aspiring authors read this blog. Steph is also an Aussie. Do you think having an agent and publisher in a different country (like the US or UK) presents any problems?

I’ve suggested Steph ask Michael Robotham about possible issues. With the time difference, of course, you have to carefully schedule phone calls, and Steph can’t as easily do US book tours. But it’s my understanding that two Aussie publishers had partials of this manuscript, and neither jumped at it. Now, oddly, when her book sells to an Australian publisher it will be considered “foreign rights.”

I suggested slight rewordings of things that would puzzle American readers. YA readers are smart and in a sense very cosmopolitan – they can “visit” Australia with the click of a mouse – but you don’t want something to  take them out of the story. When Steph referred to a Hills Hoist, I suggested mentioning clothes hanging on it so nonAussie readers would know what it was. Ditto with a stubbie – and she’ll have to make clear that it’s legal to drink in Australia at 18 (in the US you have to be 21). I also suggested descriptions of the setting, because US readers are going to wonder what the town and terrain look like.

Sometimes publishers have a limited view of what the American public requires and insist on changes in foreign-set novels (Steph has discussed this on her blog). But I firmly believe the Australianisms and the setting of this book will make it enticingly exotic to American readers – yet not so foreign they can’t relate to it.

What can writers do to maximise their chances of being signed by a literary agent?

Write a good novel and a strong query letter, and approach agents who are right for your book.

Many people query long before they are ready. Polish your novel like crazy, have people beta read it, and polish again. Read it aloud and revise again. When you think it’s ready, put it aside for three weeks, read it again, and polish more. Then you may be ready to query. (Most people write appalling awful query letters – they get stupendously self-conscious and ramble on without succinctly capturing the story line.)

Find books similar to yours or books you love and look up their agents online. Tell the agent why you are querying him or her; you can say I loved THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE or I greatly enjoyed WHAT THE DEAD KNOW. Include the first few pages of your manuscript by pasting them into the body of your email.

My novel and Steph’s have gripping beginnings – ones that are eerily similar, both involving a female character rescuing a male character from drowning – that apparently grabbed agents’ attention.

Can you talk a little bit about how you found a literary agent and now your two-book deal with Shaye Areheart?

I queried one agent who made suggestions I thought would weaken my story, and then (partly to prove him wrong!) queried a half dozen or so top agents plus several others. To my surprise every agent who responded asked for partials or fulls. (After the manuscript sold, I did get a polite “no thanks” query response from uber-agent Molly Friedrich – but rejections are much less painful at that point!)

The agent I signed with I almost didn’t query – he takes very few clients and after I sealed the envelope I thought, Well, it’s only 97 cents postage. Then he called to ask me to email the manuscript, and read it over a holiday weekend. He seemed perfect for this novel and its sequels – he has repped John Lescroart and Jonathan and Faye Kellerman, plus Amitav Ghosh and others – so I soon cut the hunt short, declined the other agents who had offered, and signed with Barney Karpfinger, three weeks after starting querying. Then I had to decide between wonderful publishers – a really tough decision – and went with Shaye Areheart Books (Random House).

My novel LEARNING TO SWIM features a woman who worked as a newspaper sports editor (as did I) and lives in a big house with a bunch of roommates (as did I), and rescues a small boy from a lake. It’s a cross-border suspense novel that takes place in upstate New York and Vermont, and also in Ottawa, Canada’s capital. Publication date is about a year from now, with its sequel a year later. (The mills of publishing grind exceedingly slow.)

Thank you for the chance to visit your site, and a huge congrats to Steph!


  1. Terrific interview – very inspiring stories. Congrats to both Sara and Steph for their accomplishments and finding agents. It’s always great to hear success stories! Best wishes with your novels.
    Thanks for the info re: Secret Agent Contest – I was unaware of it.

  2. Thanks! I just happened across the Secret Agent contest – it runs 10 times a year, but each is open only to specific genres. We were in luck – the September one included YA. (The funny thing is that Steph wasn’t chosen as the winner of the contest – the opening pages of a middle grade book were selected. But sometimes, you don’t have to be the winner to win.)

    When I get a bit ahead in my work, I’m going to start a similar contest on my own blog. With the blessing of the originator, of course.

  3. Great interview, Sara and Diane. Sara, congrats on your two-book deal! I think it’s wonderful that you’ve paid your good fortune forward by encouraging Steph to submit her work. I have my fingers crossed for her!

  4. I run an alternative news site that covers govnt sponsored terror, depopulation, the nwo etc. ,

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