Interview with YA Author & Literary Agent Tessa Emily Hall
Today I have a very special guest on the blog – Tessa Emily Hall! Tessa is the author of Purple Moon and Unwritten Melody (links below), and a Jr. Agent at Hartline Literary Agency. Today she will be revealing both a writer’s and an agent’s perspective on publishing. Thank you, Tessa, for being here! Let’s get started!
You signed the contract for your first novel, Purple Moon, when you were 16! How did that come about? Was Purple Moon the first manuscript you ever finished?
I began writing stories when I was three-years-old, so Purple Moon wasn’t technically the first manuscript that I’ve completed. ;) It is, however, the first full-length novel that I’ve completed. Growing up, I had a tendency to start books and I never stuck with them long enough to complete them.
I was 16 when I attended my first writer’s conference, and that’s where I met my publisher. He read the sample chapters of Purple Moon that I had with me, requested the full manuscript, and offered a contract a few months later. =)
What were some struggles you faced as a young writer? Was publication what you expected?
I think all young writers share a similar struggle, and that is lack of experience—not just writing experience, but life experience. Even now, at 23, I’ve yet to live as many years as an author who is twice my age. Because of that, I don’t have a wellspring of experience to serve as inspiration for my novels. This is where research and critique partners come in handy.
As a teenager, I was familiar with how adults spoke and communicated with one another, but I still had to have my adult family members read over the dialogue between the adults in Purple Moon to make sure it sounded authentic. (I assume adult writers—at least those who are at least twice the age of a teenager—experience a similar struggle when they try to reflect the speech of today’s teens as well.)
Before I was published, I don’t think I realized how difficult it was to self-promote! Unlike many authors, I don’t mind the marketing aspect of being an author; in fact, I find it exciting to brainstorm new and creative marketing strategies. But for a new author who is still trying to build her readership, marketing requires a lot of work—and oftentimes I’ve invested hours on self-promotion with very little to show for it. That can be discouraging, to say the least, especially since marketing cuts into valuable writing time.
I guess I assumed, before I was published, that I would only need to focus on marketing when a new book was released, then I could return to my writing cave and work on my next book. Maybe that was the case for authors fifteen years ago, but today’s authors—especially the newer ones—are expected to invest almost the same amount of time into building their platform as they do into writing their next book. It’s a challenge, to say the least!
How have you grown your author platform? What methods can other writers use to attract readers both to their blog and to social media?
Funny that I answered the previous question before I read this one! =) When it comes to building a platform, I like to stay true to who I am as an author, focus on my strengths and what I find to benefit me the most. I try to do this in a way that doesn’t suck away too much of my time and distract me from writing.
I recommend that writers first discover their brand—how they want to be viewed by their audience, what value they bring to their readership, and who they are at the core. They should identify their target audience, then find their sweet spot—ways they can reach these readers in areas that intersect with the readers’ needs/desires and the writer’s strengths and passions.
"I recommend that writers first discover their brand—how they want to be viewed by their audience, what value they bring to their readership, and who they are at the core."
Then, writers should write down their platform goals and ask themselves the following questions: How often will I post on social media/my blog each week? Which social media platforms will I spend most of my time on? What kind of content will I post?
Writers should be intentional with their social media content if they hope to build a specific readership, and they should research hashtags they can use with their posts that will target those readers. They can then use a scheduling program, such as Hootsuite, to schedule their posts. I like to spend 20 – 30 minutes for four days a week scheduling my posts for Twitter and Facebook, and I set a timer to make sure I don’t get too carried away. ;) (Thanks to Edie Melson’s book, “Connections”, for this tip!)
The same guidelines can apply to blogging as well. I wrote a blog series about blogging to build a readership, which you can find at these links: Part 1 and Part 2.
What would you say has been your greatest challenge thus far in your writing journey?
The greatest challenge? It’s hard to find just one challenge. =) As I mentioned, marketing and building a platform has definitely been a struggle to overcome. But I think I’ve found the greatest challenge to present itself during the waiting seasons of my writing journey. It’s difficult during those waiting seasons—waiting for an agent or publisher; waiting to sell a certain amount of copies of a book, etc.—to keep my head above the waters and see the big picture of my writing career. It’s during those times when I have to really seek God, and He reminds me of the vision He’s given me, the reason I believe He’s called me to write.
While You Wait...
When writers struggle to see past a current season of their writing life—whether it’s a waiting season, or a season of doubt and discouragement due to rejections—I advise that they hang on to the promises God has laid on their heart and trust that the path He has set them on will lead to the destination He has in mind for their writing journey.
He is always faithful to bring to completion what He’s begun (Phil. 1:6), and I believe He gives us gifts and puts dreams on our hearts for a reason.
As an agent, you see lots of queries. What are you looking for in a manuscript? What are you looking for in a client?
Great questions! In a manuscript, I love to see an intriguing premise that stands out from the rest of the submissions, yet one that isn’t so unique that it would be a risk to shop to a publisher. I then make sure that the manuscript contains a solid plot and character arc and has a theme woven organically into the inner character journey. I’ll then look at the writing of the manuscript. The writing has to be clean and polished; it has to be obvious that the author has studied the craft—otherwise I request that the author hire a freelance editor.
In a client, I’m looking for someone who I can see myself working with long-term, someone who won’t be just a one-hit wonder. I like to find clients who are go-getters. Clients who understand that the writing journey is not a quick, easy process; that it takes hard work and perseverance to see success. I also look for clients who can remain professional—those who are humble and have a good head on their shoulders, can accept rejections and criticism, and who doesn’t send nagging emails. Patience is a must-have virtue in this industry!
I especially love to see writers who are willing to invest in their writing craft and career by attending conferences and studying books on the craft. That shows me that they are a doer and not just a dreamer, and that they take their writing career seriously.
Then, of course, I look for clients who have established a web presence, understand their brand as an author, and actively work to establish an online platform.
What are 3 things that result in an automatic agent rejection?
When a writer sends me email after email, asking if I received their original submission.
A writer who has zero online presence. If I know that a publisher will say “no” to a writer who doesn’t have an online presence, then I’m not going to take my chances in signing with them.
A writer who neglects to follow any of the submission guidelines
Can you share a genre/concept you’d LOVE to see right now?
I think it’s wise for an author to stay one step ahead of the trends. Obviously dystopian used to be a huge trend in YA fiction, but I’d love to find a story that bends the confinements of time by combining past, present, and future. YA books that blend reality with fantasy/sci-fi elements are popular right now, and I personally love reading books in that genre. I’m also a huge fan of speculative fiction and stories that are innovative and have to do with time travel or the supernatural.
I’d also like to work with more authors who are Christians yet have written manuscripts that are clean and ready to sell to the general market. That seems to be the direction that the YA Christian fiction is headed. I’d advise Christian YA writers to read YA books in the general market and understand what teens today experience before they try to write for them, especially if they’re writing contemporary fiction.
What are some components of a stellar, memorable query?
A query that hooks me from the beginning is concise yet grabbing and has all of the elements of a standard query letter: a hook/tagline, brief story synopsis, manuscript specifics, and the author’s credentials/publishing history. I love when queries give me just enough information in a way that leaves me itching to find out more about the story.
If there is one thing you would recommend a writer do, what would it be? What would you recommend they not do?
I’d recommend that writers understand what it’s like to be an author in today’s
industry. If writing is your dream, it’s important that you work hard not only to write your books, but also to come across as a professional writer rather than another amateur, wannabe author. This requires that writers research the publishing industry and stay up to date on publishing trends. It means they research the craft and apply what they’ve learned to their manuscript so it’s clean and presentable. It means they build an online presence, connect with other readers/writers, and get plugged into a writer’s organization and critique group. This, to me, strikes the difference between a professional writer and just another wannabe writer.
I’d recommend that they don’t listen to other writers who advise them to ignore writing rules because “best-selling author so-and-so uses multiple adverbs in her work of art”, so why shouldn’t they? When I see aspiring authors give this advice to other aspiring authors, I cringe. Yes, it is true that there are best-selling authors who bend writing rules. But frankly, publishers aren’t going to condemn them on this; they know that the book will sell millions of copies anyway. It’s too much of a risk for a new writer who is struggling to break into the industry to submit a sloppily written manuscript to an agent. When I read a manuscript submission from a writer, I can always tell whether or not they’ve invested time into perfecting their craft. This, too, strikes a balance between a professional writer and a wannabe writer, because professional writers will always do everything it takes to write and edit their manuscript to the best of their ability.
Tessa Emily Hall writes inspirational yet authentic YA fiction to show teens they’re not alone. Her passion for shedding light on clean entertainment and media for teens lead her to a career as a Jr. Agent at Hartline Literary Agency, YA Acquisitions Editor for Illuminate YA (LPC Imprint), and Founder/Editor of PursueMagazine.net. Tessa's first teen devotional will release with Bethany House in 2018. She's guilty of making way too many lattes and never finishing her to-read list. When her fingers aren’t flying 116 WPM across the keyboard, she can be found speaking to teens, decorating her insulin pump, and acting in Christian films. Her favorite way to procrastinate is by connecting with readers on her blog, mailing list, social media (@tessaemilyhall), and website: www.tessaemilyhall.com.
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