Debut author Sophie Chen Keller explains how she got started writing and how she landed her dream agent for her novel, The Luster of Lost Things, with her first query letter.
I’ve loved reading books for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of my mom reading out loud from fairy tales and childhood classics by Roald Dahl and EB White, helping me learn English after we immigrated to the US. It wasn’t long until I began writing stories of my own, the first of which was about talking animals who lived at the bottom of the sea (influenced, no doubt, by the Redwall books I devoured), and sometime in middle school I began reading about writing—I spent my birthday money on Stephen King’s gem of a book, On Writing, subscribed to Writer’s Digest, and checked out every year of Best American Short Stories the library had available.
This guest post is by Sophie Chen Keller. Keller was born in Beijing, China, and was raised in Ohio and California. Her fiction has won several awards and has appeared in publications such as Glimmer Train and Pedestal. She lives in Boston. THE LUSTER OF LOST THINGS, releasing on August 8, 2017, is her first novel.
One summer—I think it was the summer of my freshman year in high school, but I’m bad at math and also at remembering things—I wrote a short story about a pedicab driver in rural China. Growing up, my family and I visited China every few years to see our relatives. Back then, China was in the early stages of its development, and those “three-wheeled wagons” pulled by a driver on a bicycle were the most common way of getting around. We would pile into the wagon, four or five us at a time, mopping our foreheads in the 100-degree heat. I remember the driver’s sweat-soaked back as he strained with all his might and pulled us down the potholed dirt road.
The image snagged in my heart. I wrote a story about him, so that he might have a voice. Even back then, I followed the same writing routine, sitting down after breakfast to write a set number of words a day, every day except weekends. When the story was done, I submitted it to Glimmer Train, and received an acceptance call shortly afterwards. In that conversation, I think I was half in shock and not quite sure how to use my words. I’m not sure if they know it, but I am forever grateful to editors Linda Swanson-Davies and Susan Burmeister-Brown for picking that story out of the slush pile and opening that first door. That gave me the confidence and encouragement I needed, a decade later, to push away the fear and uncertainty and go all-in on writing my first novel.
I started writing The Luster of Lost Things in the fall of 2014. I hadn’t written a thing since graduating from college and was already a pretty slow writer to begin with, but I put my head down and kept at it. In four months, I had my very first draft of a novel. At less than 60,000 words, it was a slender draft, to be sure—but then again, so was The Old Man and the Sea and Of Mice and Men, right? Well, I was no Hemingway or Steinbeck, but the manuscript was as polished as I could get it on my own, with feedback from family members—who were the only ones I had permitted to read the manuscript. And even that was stepping out of my comfort zone: I was so secretive and shy about my writing that, to read a short story of mine, my college roommate had resorted to tiptoeing over to my side of the room before I woke to sneak a look at the magazine I had shoved inside my desk, underneath my candy stash.
Once the draft was ready, I pored over writing blogs and forums online, like AbsoluteWrite, which was a treasure trove of information for someone like me who had exactly zero writerly friends or acquaintances. I absorbed the advice and insights, studied query letters that worked and queries letters that didn’t, and took a stab at writing a query letter of my own. I stabbed a few more times before landing on the right one. A few days after Christmas, I sent a query letter to Jeff Kleinman, whose name I’d found in the Acknowledgements section of one of my favorite books, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. Jeff responded practically immediately, which freaked me out, and which I have subsequently learned to be less freaked out by.
His enthusiasm was contagious, and he completely understood what I was trying to do with the strange little book I’d written. In one breath, he told me about all the revisions the book needed and offered representation. After I did a double-take and realized he actually liked my book enough to take me on, I did a silent scream and a weird dance that he couldn’t see, but that my sister, embarrassingly, could.
In retrospect, I probably did a lot of things “wrong”: submitting an anemic 60,000 word novel that had gone through minimal revisions, sending a query letter during the holidays, sending a query letter to my top-choice agent right out of the gate. But maybe it just goes to show that there’s no “wrong” way to do this writing thing as long as you’re doing it, and that it’s all about the people who took a chance on me and gave me the opportunities to make my dream reality.
I realize right about now that I don’t have an end, but that’s probably okay. After all, according to the sage and sunny wisdom of Natasha Bedingfield, the rest is still unwritten.
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