I’ve heard of the sophomore slump–when authors have trouble writing their second book–but I was sure I’d be immune to it. Why? Ash Princess isn’t my first book. If there was a sophomore slump, I was sure it happened sometime in 2009, though I don’t remember it. I’ve always been a fast drafter and, in the case of Ash Princess at least, my first draft was pretty great.

Yes, I can feel you glaring daggers at me through the computer. I’m not saying it was perfect. It wasn’t. But it was clean and my main character’s arc was solid and the world was interesting. And the writing–the writing!–I don’t know where it came from, but it was not my usual first draft writing. I loved Theo’s voice and it was easy to tap into. Writing it felt so natural and I finished my first draft in a little over a month.

Fast forward to now, when I’m a quarter of the way through the sequel and slumping. Hard.

It isn’t that I don’t know what’s happening in this book. When my agent went on submission with Ash Princess, she asked me to write summaries of books two and three so she could sell it as a series. I know what happens in this book and even though I’m aware that bits and pieces might change, I know where it’s going and I know how it ends. And I love it.

But writing it has been tortuous. Everything that was so easy about writing Ash Princess is suddenly not easy anymore. The voice that once came so naturally is harder to find and the writing that somehow came out lovely and lyrical a year and a half ago is…not so lovely and lyrical. It’s rough. It’s a first draft. I know this, but I can’t help but feel disappointed in myself, especially as I’m periodically dipping back into Ash Princess to work on minor/line edits.

And a big part of that is that I’m writing this book under contract, which is more than just writing on deadline. When I wrote Ash Princess, I’d recently left my first agent so I was just writing it for myself. I wasn’t thinking about how other people would react to it or what parts they would or wouldn’t like. I was telling the story that I wanted to tell. If you were to ask my agent or editor, they would probably tell you that they want me to still be writing like that, but it isn’t as easy as it sounds. No matter how much I try, I can’t shake the knowledge that there are now other people depending on this book to be amazing, and that’s a lot of pressure.

There is a light, though. My agent sent me a much-needed pep talk today that helped more than I can put into words. I don’t think I ever understood when people likened their agents to therapists before, but that’s the only comparison that comes to mind now. She told me exactly what I needed to hear and reminded me that even though the first quarter I sent to her needed work, I just needed to focus on getting the whole draft done before I worried about that. Again, easier said than done, but I tried.

I opened a new scene in Scrivener today and I wrote 1,200 words that I actually really like. Plus, it’s leading to a scene that I’m going to enjoy writing even more tomorrow. Is this draft perfect? No. Is it great? Not really. Does it have the potential to get there? Yes, it definitely does, and that’s enough for now.

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When I was eighteen, I met my first authors and it was life changing. I had always loved books and loved writing, but I’d seen it as a hobby. It wasn’t until Libba Bray and Shannon Hale sat down at their Barnes and Noble event in Miami, pastry stickers wrapped around their heads like tiaras, that I realized it was an actual career. By the time they launched into a joint rendition of Total Eclipse of the Heart, I was sold on being an author.

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When the time came for the audience to ask questions, awkward eighteen year old me timidly raised her hand and asked the question she’d been rehearsing in her mind for days: “How do you beat writer’s block?”

Now, this was almost ten years ago, so unfortunately I can’t remember their advice verbatim (though I’m sure it was equal parts brilliant and hilarious) but I do remember the bit that stuck with me: Writer’s block is the fear that you’re going to write badly and the only way to beat it is to write anyway.

I have to remind myself of this a lot when I’m working on first drafts (or–as they’re more aptly known now–zero drafts). All too often, I find myself staring at a blank Scrivener document, terrified to start typing because I’m sure that whatever I write will be awful. And the truth is, if just might be, and that’s okay because it’s a first draft.

I like to think of the drafting process like sketching (though not literally because the best sketching I can do is a stick figure).

First, you just need to get down the shapes. There will be way too many lines guiding your way. It will be flat. You probably won’t even be able to tell what you’re really looking at unless you squint REALLY hard. But that’s the ground work, it doesn’t need to be pretty.

In the next draft, you can erase some of those guides–you don’t need them once you get your bearings in the world and the story. You smooth out the shapes so that they start looking like Things. Your characters go from faceless lumps to real people who stand out from a crowd–who love and hate and want and fear. You can look at your story as a whole and know what you’re seeing. Maybe there are recurring themes you hadn’t realized were there. Maybe that character you wrote as a one off is actually way more important than you realized.

Now that you’ve got a solid structure, the fun starts. It’s time to add color and bring it to life. Shade some parts, highlight others. Chiaroscuro. (I went to art school just so I could use that word. Worth it, I guess?) You can make your characters so real, so flawed and human, that they could almost walk right out of the pages. Choices that were black and white in that first draft take on more nuance and complications. Motivations shift and sharpen. The world unfurls and grows until it feels as real to you as this one.

So yes, your first draft sucks, but that’s okay. Let it suck. Get the words down, tell yourself the story however you can. Later, you’ll turn it into art.

Congrats on making it through all that! Your reward is a rare, embarrassing photo of awkward eighteen year old me, meeting my idols.

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As you may know, if you’ve found yourself here, my YA Fantasy novel, Ash Princess, will be out from Delacorte (Random House) in Spring 2018 in the US. It’s also sold in ten(!!!) other countries so far, which is just surreal. I think everyone who knows me knows that this has been a long time in the works. Eight years, to be exact, from finishing my first book when I was eighteen to selling this one.
Which also breaks down to nine manuscripts. You read that right. Nine manuscripts. In hindsight, most of these could more accurately be called drafts since it took me quite a while to get the hang of editing (and relatedly, asking for help from critique partners and beta readers). So if I could give any kind of general advice, it would be that: get other eyes on your work. Ask for help from people who you trust to be critical. Listen to them and REwrite.
Other advice? Write a compelling query letter.
One important thing to remember is that agents WANT you to succeed. They’re hoping a query will grab them, they’re hoping they’ll read material they fall in love with. But they also see a lot of queries and writing a query that stands out is a lot of work and often requires several drafts and getting critiques from others to point out things that you might be too close to notice.
I’ve interned at two different literary agencies and at one, my main job was going through the query inbox. At the other, I read submitted manuscripts, which is a topic for a different day. I had already sent my queries for Ash Princess when I started my first internship and shortly thereafter, my agent (the incomparable Laura Biagi) offered me representation, but I learned so much about writing query letters in those months that I wish I’d known years earlier because my queries pre-Ash Princess?
They sucked. You want proof? Behold: the very first query I ever wrote, at eighteen, for a YA fantasy novel in the vein of Gail Carson Levine in all of it’s cring-y glory.

To __________,

Undoubtedly you’ve grown up hearing fairytales. Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, Beauty and the Beast; classic tales full to the brim of magic, love and happily ever afters for all those who deserve them. Stories about dainty, delicate princesses, peasant girls with their heads in the clouds and heroes that are all charm and no flaws. But in reality, no one is quite so perfect, even in the realm of fairytales.

Anything, my first full novel, is the story about three girls who live in the fantastical country of Vairleigh. There’s Violie, the blunt, brash and beautiful princess silently rebelling against a life she has no control over, Bindi the Cinderella-esque heroine who has both feet firmly on the ground, thank-you-very-much and more sense than to pine over princes and then there’s Tippa, the wide-eyed, romantic village girl who proves she’s made of tougher stuff than everyone seems to expect of her.

When Bindi’s mother dies, leaving her orphaned at seventeen, a stroke of fate sends her to the palace on the whim of Prince Lucas, a boy she didn’t recognize a few weeks before when they met at Market Day. Once there, Bindi is ostracized by the other ladies who attend to the princess, ridiculed if she’s lucky, ignored completely if not. She finds friendship in an unusual place, the princess herself who is just as much an outcast as she is, but by choice. She also finds herself falling for Prince Lucas, despite her hardest efforts to be practical.

After Bindi left her best friend Tippa behind in their village, Tippa relied more than ever on her fiancé Peter, whom she’d been desperately in love with since they were twelve. But when another girl turns up pregnant, claiming Peter as the baby’s father, Tippa finds herself wholly alone for the first time. She makes it through, closing herself off from romance for the pain it had already caused her. But where does that leave Jory, the scar-faced, kind-eyed knight who has been faithfully delivering letters to and from Bindi since she left?

Violie, on the other hand, needs no one. She’s grown up with only her older brother and his despicable friend, Raif for true company. One day, she knows, she’ll be shipped off to a foreign country to secure an alliance of truce. It’s not a future she’s ever openly begrudged, though she quietly fights it in any way she can. When Raif goes from being despicable to being surprisingly alluring, Violie finds herself unwilling to part from him. Though at what cost to her country?

Anything tells the story of three radically different girls from opposing backgrounds as they pass into adulthood and learn what love and friendship really mean.

As stated before, Anything is my first full novel (currently just over 97,000 words), though I’ve written several unfinished stories and a few plays including one that won Critic’s Choice at the Florida District X Thespian Festival. I’m currently a freshman at Savannah College of Art and Design and aspiring to major in Performing Arts and minor in Creative Writing and British-American Studies. Thank you for taking the time to look over this and let me know if you’d like to see the full manuscript.

Sincerely,

Laura Kathleen Sebastian

A couple of side notes: I did not, in fact, end up minoring in Creative Writing or British-American Studies. Eighteen-year-old Laura was an ambitious but lazy creature. Secondly, this query could have been phenomenal and this book wouldn’t have gone anywhere. It was a godawful mess on so many levels, but let’s pretend for a second that it wasn’t. There are so many things wrong with this query alone. I’m also pretty mortified by the names I chose. Specifically, don’t name a character after an item pertaining to a religion outside your own.

 

The most troubling thing about it isn’t even the embarrassing mess of typos (but check your typos, guys) it’s that there is nothing compelling about any of this. There is no sense of what the characters are working toward or what’s at stake for them if they fail. I don’t think anyone reading this would want to know more and therefore, it’s not a successful query.

 

The beginning paragraph could, honestly, be cut. It’s cliche and boring and I would bet most agents stopped reading one sentence in. Not that it gets much better after that.

 

There’s just too much happening here. Now, I had three main characters with different things going on and one of the many problems with the manuscript itself is that there wasn’t really a through-line connecting the stories. The characters knew each other and interacted, but their stories weren’t really connected. As a result, the query was impossible to write in any sensical way.

 

For comparison’s sake, below I’ve pasted the query I sent out for Ash Princess:

Dear __________,

Theodosia’s mother was known as the Queen of Flame and Fury, but after their country was conquered by seafaring savages and her mother executed, Theo became the Ash Princess. Taken hostage at the age of six to prevent rebellion, she has been ridiculed and abused by the Kaiser and his court for more than a decade. Though she is surrounded by those who use her country’s once sacred magic sacrilegiously, the only power Theo possesses is her sharp, conniving mind. She pretends to be broken and empty-headed in order to survive, but Theo has never stopped gathering intelligence and planning her revenge.

When the Kaiser forces her to execute her last hope of rescue, Theo vows to save herself, even if that means hurting the enemies she’s come to love. She throws herself into a plot to seduce and murder the Kaiser’s warrior son with the help of a group of magically gifted and volatile rebels, but her developing feelings for him and her close friendship with a spoiled but kind socialite blur the line between the naive girl she pretends to be and the shrewd queen she needs to become.

Cornered into impossible choices and unable to trust even those who claim to be on her side, Theodosia must stand on her own as a queen in order to to liberate her people before there is nothing left of her country but ashes.

ASH PRINCESS is a YA Fantasy novel complete at 91,000 words. It is perfect for fans of Marie Rutkoski’s THE WINNER’S CURSE and those who root for Sansa on GAME OF THRONES (but wish she had a little more gumption).

I graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design in 2012 and am currently living in Manhattan and working as a babysitter. Previously, I interned at Housing Works Bookstore and I still volunteer there. I also have a play published with Playscripts, Inc.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Laura Sebastian

Even rereading it now, there are little things I want to change, but overall the query does it’s job. It introduces a main character (Theodosia) and shows what she wants (to reclaim her country) and it makes it clear what’s at stake if she fails (her life and the lives of her people). It also hints at complications that will arise on her journey without giving an overwhelming amount of information right up front. My agent ended up using bits and pieces of this query in my pitch letter and it still lives on in my Goodreads summary. I also can’t understate the importance of good, accurate comp titles, but again, that’s another post for another day.

 

In an early version of this query, I’d made the common mistake of throwing too many fantasy names of places and people right up front but an amazingly kind agent (Molly Jaffa at Folio Jr) pointed this out early on and my query became instantly better.

 

It’s worth pointing out that my Ash Princess query is significantly shorter than my first one, but that it accomplishes way more. This is something to think about when you write your query as well. Having seen a query inbox from the other side, I can say that agents do get a LOT of queries and that keeping things concise and compelling is the way to go.

 

I got no interest at all in my first query, no partial or full requests. For Ash Princess, I got quite a few requests, including one from Agent Laura!

 

So if you’re currently querying or getting ready to start, I hope this helps out a bit and I’m happy to answer any questions. It’s a rough path, I know. I have email folders with over 200 rejections, not including the agents who don’t reply if they aren’t interested. But hang in there. Write. Rewrite. Rewrite some more. It’ll be worth it, I promise.

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