In Pitch Madness this year I had the awesome HOODLUM by Mia Siegert on Team Yellow, aka Team Dark Side. She has recently signed with Travis Pennington from the Knight Agency and shares her journey with us – as well seeing it from the other side with Travis sharing his views on the process and Mia!
Tell us a bit about Hoodlum?
First of all, many thanks to you for selecting me as well as everyone who participated in PitMad who RTed and requested HOODLUM. As well, the obvious huge thank you for Brenda for running the contests as I think it’s a terrific networking opportunity for everyone and opportunity to make some new friends.
HOODLUM is a contemporary crime retelling of Robin Hood that mostly takes place in the Projects. Army Veteran Rob Loxely is suffering PTSD after his squad is killed and fiancée Marian goes missing. Jaded by the system, he turns to petty crime alongside his best buddy Guillermo “Will” Escarlata, a gang member whose release from juve depended on his enlisting in the army (where he was then discharged just before the abolition of DADT). They encounter a lot of zany characters but most notably (little) Jon, a 14-year-old homeless junkie, who Rob believes is a sign from Marian to change for the good. HOODLUM’s a really dark, gritty story that encompasses uncomfortable things that many people are reluctant to talk about.
It was a story I needed to write after speaking with a friend who used to be part of the special forces until he was shot three times. Tragically, his war partners were gunned down in a helicopter by al-Qaeda right after assassinating Bin Laden. Jon was a character I created when I was fourteen to cope with the death of a high school friend who overdosed on heroin (he was only sixteen).
What was your querying journey like?
Honestly? It was brutal, lol. There were a lot of tears and frustrations over the past three years (including 208 rejections over three manuscripts, most of them very close calls with a ton of, “I’m not sure why I’m not offering” messages). I kept at it because of a commencement speech that the amazing poet Bhanu Kapil gave at Goddard where she said that a writer was NOT allowed to quit on a manuscript until they received 78 rejections. No joke: it was the 79th on the manuscript that had the yes.
My querying journey was especially tough in that while I had many loving friends, I had many who didn’t support me at all, especially when I made the difficult decision to move toward a commercial market when I’d studied–and love reading/writing–literary fiction. I wanted to continue to write in a literary style but just for a broader market. Having friends refuse to read your work and mock your efforts to make your passion a career was brutal.
To keep going, while I queried, I continued to write as much as possible. Not just write, but finish novels. That also ties back to the riding world, the idea of never resting on your laurels and persevering. I worked on HOODLUM with Mark Spencer, Judy Troy, and David Galef (as well as a few amazing folks–Kale, Cat, David, and Leslie). I also had queried a pretty amazing agent who fell in love with HOODLUM almost a year ago and gave me tons of advice on how to rewrite it and nail the inciting/precipitating incident–this agent also told me that I should definitely accept the offer from The Knight Agency as they would definitely take care of my career and she looked forward to buying/reading my work as a fan.
When it finally happened with the query to offer–a span of only sixteen days–I was really overwhelmed. Ecstatic, of course, but it was hard to process because I was so used to close calls and failure. HOODLUM was my third completed novel, and I was already 20K into another novel and just starting a fifth. Many family members were screaming and jumping up and down when I told them. I was so stunned, my response was to stare at the wall for an hour then go to the grocery store.
Once the offer came in, admittedly I fielded a lot of interest but I was certain the Knight Agency was the right decision for me with their interest and mission statement revolving around commercial sales and careers. Now I get to practice the being patient part allowing Travis to work while I proceed with finishing the other projects I started.
What made you decide to query Travis?
I followed the Knight Agency for several years. Besides from having incredible sales with many best sellers on the NYT lists (often at the same time), I loved that they represented edgy and gritty books that were diverse–LGBTQ, Race, Religion, you name it. As a human rights advocate and a big fan of the “We Need Diverse Books” movement, I wanted an agency that made good on their word: an agency that said “yes, we want diverse books!” and 100% meant it.
The Knight Agency holds true to that statement as people can see with the diverse authors they represent.
I saw how Travis worked with marketing and the announcement that he was accepting clients as an associate agent. Knowing he’s a writer intrigued me as I felt he would understand where I was coming from.
As well, as an associate agent, Travis works directly with the amazing Deirdre Knight (who I emailed with a few times as well) so talk about getting terrific guidance and endorsement along the way.
Tell us about that moment, when Travis knew that you were the writer for him and you knew for certain he was the agent for you?
Funny story. So, I queried Travis with HOODLUM (which he was very interested in–the whole gritty Robin Hood thing where ethics come into play (especially relevant with things such as the riots in Baltimore)). I also brought up my YA novel JERKBAIT (this was the one with 78 rejections). He asked to see a query and the manuscript very early on a Sunday morning (he’s on the west coast, and that early even for me!). I sent it in and figured I may or may not hear about that–that maybe it was a kind formality.
I heard back within hours with an offer and an aside that both Travis and Deirdre loved it. When I later spoke on the phone with Travis, he said he knew from the first paragraph that this was it–that they were onboard with HOODLUM/JERKBAIT combo.
Even though I knew I’d be happy with having Travis as an agent, he really sealed the deal when he asked about a novel on my website. It was an experimental, literary horse novel called OUTGROWN HORSES and was my Goddard MFA thesis. Excerpts of it had been published in a few small presses. I realized then just how dead serious he was about working with me and forming my career for the long haul. We even discussed how I could continue writing the gritty adult retellings that I love as well as the dark/contemporary sorta-sports YA that I’m getting obsessed with. In our phone call, we meshed so well that I actually immediately invited him to a New Jersey Devils game the next time he came to the east coast in hockey season as he never has been able to see a NHL game.
Plus he loves dogs as much as I love horses.
What other stories are on the horizon for you?
I have two finished novels besides HOODLUM. JERKBAIT is a dark/contemporary YA about identical twins–Tristan (the token straight musical theatre kid) and Robbie (a closeted gay NHL prospect)–dealing with the detriments of over-possessive parents, bullying, and online predators. It’s sort of like Dateline NBC’s “To Catch a Predator.” OUTGROWN HORSES revolves around Brent Sidell, a 20-year-old semi-closeted horse trainer who becomes exposed to the shady side of the show jumping world (links to some excerpts can be found at my website in case you’re curious: www.miasiegert.com).
Besides those finished works, and to be obnoxiously cryptic, I’m working on two exciting projects. I don’t like sitting around not writing (which I think is one of the reasons why I work well with Travis–I’m not willing to sit back and go along for the ride without working and planning for the long haul. I’m always writing or editing something). The first project is another adult crime retelling that revolves around racism/hate crimes and actually has a love story (or at least my definition of love story) with a protagonist who channels Stirling Archer or perhaps Gob Bluth. Another will hopefully become a neat YA about three high school students forced together after they find a body and start suspecting one of their parents of being involved. I suspect I’ll finish the first drafts of those this year.
How did being part of Team Yellow, AKA Team Dark Side, help you in this process?
Being a part of Team Yellow/Dark Side was really helpful for networking and e-meeting interesting writers and readers. I knew that adult novels were going to be a hard sell in that contest as most of the agents only were interested in MG and YA. Yet I was picked out of 900+ entries as one of the 17 novels on Team Yellow. From Team Yellow, I received two requests from agents who didn’t list my genre on their wish lists (so well, I took the compliment!).
I also liked that many of the Team Yellow leaders were from Australia as my boyfriend lives in Brisbane. I mean, if that’s not fate, what is?
Thank you so much for interviewing me, Sharon. To anyone reading this, I’d love to get to know you. You can follow me on Twitter, or Facebook, or even my website.
Now here’s Travis from The Knight Agency on why Mia and Hoodlum rock:
What made Hoodlum’s query stand out to you?
The query paints a picture of a flawed and troubled character who’s trying to find some justice in the world, even if it’s through illegal activities. It describes an emotional story with a lot of inner conflict and questions. Plus, Mia included the first chapter, which immediately had me hooked.
What drew you to Mia and Hoodlum beyond the initial query?
I always ask for the first chapter. Most agents do. Even if the query is bad, I’ll skip down to the first chapter and take a look. I’ve seen both: great queries and poor chapters, then poor queries with great chapters. But Mia’s package was great on both ends, and she writes the kind of gritty fiction that’s hard to resist.
Tell us about what clinched it for you to know you wanted to take Mia on as a client?
Mia is very serious about writing and has a long-term plan. Plus, she’s thinking a lot about ways to promote her work, which many new authors skip.
When I spoke to her on the phone, she was easy to talk to and eager about the future. That’s important to me—having clients who aren’t a pain to get along with. Since I hope to work with clients over a long period of time, it’s best that the people I take on are driven, but reasonable. There are many great authors who are known to be a little wacko. No matter how successful they are as writers, I’d rather not work with someone who’s sure to be difficult.
For writers in the querying trenches, what’s on your current wish list?
Really anything that doesn’t contain paranormal/supernatural elements. Paranormal, fantasy, and sci-fi are tough right now for new authors. New Adult is tough as well, and didn’t really take off as much as predicted. But I’ll look at anything that’s based in the real world and doesn’t skew into fantasy.
What’s the best advice you can give writers getting ready to query?
Have your query critiqued before sending it out! And make sure the people reading it know something about queries. I’d definitely recommend a site like www.absolutewrite.com/forums, where writers can post their work and critique others. Ninety percent of queries I receive haven’t had any critique at all—it’s obvious. There are certain basic guidelines for queries that can be found even with a basic Google search. If a writer can’t even be bothered to do some research before sending material out, they won’t have much of a chance at becoming a successful author.