J. T.Dutton is the author of the novels Freaked and Stranded, both published through HarperTeen. I met Dutton a few years ago when she came as a visiting writer to my MFA alma-mater, the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Dutton’s books are quirky and funny and daring—I highly recommend them. I was excited to get a chance to pick her brain about the process of publishing them through such a major publishing house.
Can you tell us a little bit about the process of writing and revising your first book, Freaked? You began working on it as an MFA student, right?
Yes, I submitted Freaked to my MFA workshop as a short story, then expanded it to a novella, then expanded it again to a draft of a novel for my thesis project. After I left Alaska, I dropped it into a drawer. Certain scenes continued to grow and become more mentally realized in my imagination and when I had time, I worked on them. Five years later, I finally stuffed the whole project into an envelope.
For those of us who have an unpublished novel languishing on our hard drives, landing an agent seems like the impossible dream sometimes. How did you hook up with your agent? How long did it take you to sign with your agent after you had begun shopping the book around?
I sent simultaneous blind queries to agents in A Writer’s Guide. (I did not think of Freaked as a Young Adult novel so I chose agents based on their interest in literary fiction.) Jodie Rhodes was maybe number 32 on the list. She asked to see the full manuscript, signed me a few days later, and sold the book in a matter of hours. I was still getting rejections from other agents even as news of the sale was going public in Publishers Weekly.
The seesaw effect of loving my manuscript one day and hating it the next is what kept me from submitting it sooner. Fear of rejection is what often stops me from taking important leaps of faith.
I’ve read that most agents don’t find many clients through the slush pile, preferring instead to meet clients through referrals. Do you have any advice for writers trying to brave the query letter process? What do you think makes a query letter stand out?
I was invited to teach at the Midwest Writers Workshop last summer alongside four agents who presented a panel on the best methods for pitching work. At the end of the conference, all of the agents had requested several full manuscripts and one stated that she’d had some of the best face to face meetings with authors ever. I walked away impressed by how much a one-on-one meeting with an agent can made a difference for aspiring writers. The road to publication requires a lot of collaboration between agent and writer, editor and writer, agent and editor and it makes sense that agents want a sense of who somebody is before they consider signing them.
The typical agent receives nearly 200 blind manuscript queries a week. In lieu of a face to face meeting, a blind query should probably deliver as much of the writer’s personality as possible. Some agents want writers who are market sensitive, others prefer an author who tells a good joke, others are more brass tacks and down to business. Finding the “one” should probably take a while in order for the match to be a success, and query letters should probably not be formula-written, but instead, come from some deep individual and original place.
I have yet to meet Jodie Rhodes face to face though we have exchanged hundreds of e-mails. She recently published a memoir entitled Confessions which describes why she has dedicated herself to the promotion of new authors. If every agent had a manual, figuring out a “personality match” would be a lot easier. Certainly “getting to know” Jodie has deepened my respect for her as a human being and for the work she does.
Tell us about the process of signing the contract with HarperTeen. They loved Freaked so much, they signed you to a two-book deal, right? How much freedom did you have on your second book, Stranded?
Publishers of YA novels frequently sign new authors for more than one book because the bigger contract allows them to plan releases so that the momentum and marketing of the first sells the second. It’s a good deal for writers because having an advance provides a little financial security while they are working. Having the second contract looming over me though managed to stress me out astronomically. I couldn’t dawdle or wait to feel inspired to write. I also had to show my editor a lot of garbage that I hadn’t yet recognized was garbage. I worried every day that she was going to boot me to the curb. I definitely felt like I was “faking it” a good percentage of the time.
Despite time constraints, I received quite a bit of creative freedom to take my second book in the directions I wanted. One of the things I like best about Freaked and Stranded now that they are out in the world is that they don’t fit into a clear YA mold and that they truly represent my take on the genre.
How hands-on has your agent been with your books? And your editor(s)?
I think we put equal parts love into each project. Author love is different than agent and editor love. I did the writing, Jodie did the selling, and my editor did a truckload of patient reading and recommending. One of the things I have learned since being published is writing professionally is very collaborative—a lot of thought goes into the finished product.
Now that both books are out, what’s the next step? Will you continue publishing through HarperTeen?
I have no new projects with HarperTeen in the works though I would lay down my life to publish another book with them. I learned a mountain of useful information under my editor’s tutelage. I can’t even begin to express how much I grew as a writer. Whether my next book will be something she wants is really more her decision than mine. I get the sense that she would potentially read anything new I finished, but her business is an art too and she has to make very judicious decisions about what is the best use of her time.
What’s your relationship with your agent like now that you’ve published both books in your two-book deal? What role does your agent play as you take the next steps in your career?
I keep Jodie apprised of my projects and I get the sense she hopes to see work from me soon. Hopefully, I will oblige. I am in “creative mode” at the moment, where really it’s a time just to shut the door and write.
What are you working on now? Is a third book already in the works?
I have written two half-novels and a quarter of a third since I finished Stranded which have potential but not the full-on magic that I think is going to make them interesting to a perspective publisher yet. I’m not about to give up on them, though. If I’ve learned anything these last few years, it’s that big ideas pull together in mysterious ways. I just have to keep the words flowing, sit down every day and work, and more than likely, something interesting will come from it.