New Voice & Giveaway: Sara Kocek on Promise Me Something

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Sara Kocek
is the first-time author of Promise Me Something
(Albert Whitman Teen/Open Road Media, 2013). From the promotional copy:

Reyna didn’t mean to become friends with Olive Barton . . .

But when Olive kept talking after the lunch bell, Reyna didn’t say no, and she didn’t stop Olive when she followed her into the parking lot after school either. 

Olive is blunt, headstrong, and unapologetically honest—nothing like Reyna’s other friends, or anyone Reyna’s ever met. But as Reyna begins to drift apart from her childhood clique, she finds herself growing closer to Olive.

Then Olive tells Reyna her secret, which changes everything. And as Reyna weighs her choices, she must find the courage to decide what 
really matters…before she loses Olive forever.

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage?

In college, one of my professors divided all writers into two categories: diamond polishers and swamp drivers. Diamond polishers have to make each paragraph shine before they feel ready to move onto the next paragraph. Swamp drivers plow straight through their drafts and go back later to clean up the mess.

I confess to being a diamond polisher. I revise my work almost constantly as part of my drafting process. I write a paragraph. Then I revise it. Then I revise it again. Finally—when I don’t hate it—I write the next paragraph.

So by the time I reach the end of my first draft, my manuscripts are already fairly clean—at least on a sentence level.

This was all fine and dandy before I got a book deal.

When I received my editorial letter for Promise Me Something, I felt a rush of dread. Suddenly, for the first time, I was being asked to make revisions that spanned across the entire book.

It’s one thing to revise a clunky paragraph or a poorly written scene—I can handle that. I’m fine with revisions made in isolation. But my editor raised questions that were bigger than a single scene. She rightly pointed out inconsistencies through the book at large, including character motivation, pacing, and other fundamentals.

In short, she did all the things a good editor is supposed to do. And I quietly freaked out.

So I did what everyone recommended: I took a few days to let the feedback settle, and then I went back and read her letter again. Lo and behold, on the second read, it wasn’t nearly as overwhelming. In fact, the more I dived into the manuscript, the more manageable her suggestions seemed.

In the end, the process was incredibly instructive for me. Sure, I had to put on my swamp driver gloves and dig up a few pieces of the manuscript, making a bit of a mess along the way. But now I feel much better equipped to write—and revise—my next book.

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?

Sara Kocek & Katie Bayerl

When I finished my MFA program in 2010, I knew I didn’t want to let go of the momentum I’d worked so hard to build. I finally had a finished manuscript, and people in my program were full of suggestions about who to query. So even though I was terrified, I took the plunge and sent out my first batch of queries to my five top-choice agents.

Amazingly, two of them wrote back within the same week! With rejections, that is. Fortunately, the other three requested the full manuscript.

Out of those three, two invited me to revise and resubmit. One—Sarah Burnes at the Gernert Company—said that she had some “concerns” about the manuscript but invited me to come “talk things through” in person.

At that point I still lived in NYC, so I jumped at the opportunity and scheduled an appointment.

This began a long journey of revising and drafting. You see, the manuscript that I queried about was not Promise Me Something. It was a different novel—a middle grade novel. And the problem with this middle grade novel was that it didn’t quite have an audience. It wobbled between middle grade and YA in a way that made it neither.

Sarah liked it, but she wanted to know if I had anything else—anything solidly YA. At that point, Promise Me Something was all of 50 pages, but I sent everything I had and she encouraged me to finish the book. So, for more than a year, I revised my middle grade novel and drafted Promise Me Something. And in the end, that was the one Sarah decided to represent.

Of course, along the way, there were many back and forth emails with Sarah’s assistant, Logan Garrison. In fact, Logan was the one who read my initial query and requested more pages. She was my champion from the very beginning. Through it all, I absolutely loved (and still love!) communicating with Logan. Her emails are like a cup of chamomile tea—they calm my jittery nerves and put me at ease. While my manuscript was on submission, she sent me updates every step of the way without me having to ask. (This was great because I’m super self-conscious about not wanting to pester people.) And when Promise Me Something eventually sold, Logan was there to share in my excitement and talk me through all my questions and concerns.

My advice for other writers seeking agents is simple—Find an agent whose communication style meshes well with your own. You don’t want to feel like you’re constantly bugging your agent or that you’re low on his or her priority list. And while you’d be lucky to nab a big-name agent, don’t discount newer agents who are just beginning to build their own lists—they have more time and headspace to dedicate to your career.

Most of all, look for an agent who is respectful and makes you feel important—because you are!

Don’t miss Sara Polsky’s tour stop tomorrow at The Writing Barn.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a signed copy of Promise Me Something by Sara Kocek. Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: North America.

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