My mentor told all of her students that if we hadn't sent at least fifty queries we hadn't even tried… I ended up sending fifty-five in total and my agent was the fifty-first agent I'd queried.
Thriller author Mindy Mejia told herself she would write at least one great book before she died. So far she has written three. We chat to her about her long road to securing a literary agent, writing to process fears and maintaining daily motivation.
What made you want to be a writer?
Growing up, my mom used to read to me every night before bed and those worlds seemed more vivid and fantastic than anything in my actual life. As a teenager and adult, I began creating internal worlds, inventing situations and characters that I would follow over the course of days or months. It seemed entirely normal to me to start writing those stories down and I always told myself I would write at least one great book before I died.
Do you have a writing routine?
My routine varies depending on a lot of factors, such as whether my kids are in school or if I have a new book coming out. I generally work from my home office, but a coffee shop or a library will do just fine. Right now my favorite time to write is early morning and that’s a struggle because I also love sleep, but I’m motivated by how I feel in that chair in the morning. It’s a new day and it seems like there’s nothing in the world except me and that story. I also give myself deadlines and daily word count goals. I know it’s sad I find those things motivating, but otherwise I could get lost in a single paragraph or a side project for hours.
Is there any particular incident that has happened along your writing journey that you’d like to share?
My mom recently told me about how she was called into the guidance counselor at my school when I was in kindergarten because I’d written a detailed account of her death and funeral. Obviously, my teacher was a little concerned and my mom was like, “Um, she wants me dead?” The counselor said it was exactly the opposite; I was terrified she was going to die and writing the story was a way for me to process my fear. It was a strange moment hearing about this over three decades later and realizing that’s the whole key to why I write thrillers and crime fiction. I’m constantly writing the worst-case scenario, because if I can write into my fears, I can write through and beyond them.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Don’t wait for inspiration and don’t worry about the ruts. I get into lots of ruts, I have days when I'm sure my WIP is a steaming pile no one would ever want to read. All writers do. To get back on track, I put my butt in the chair and keep writing. Nothing fancy. No cool tricks. I think a lot of readers and beginning writers have a somewhat romanticized view of how an author works (cue image of Joseph Fiennes with his Shakespearean quill and images of Gwyneth Paltrow swimming in his head. lol.) The reality is that this is a job and we have to work at it, just like everyone else. You'll have ruts, you'll have less productive days. That doesn't mean you can stop coming into work. Write your way through.
Do you have any specific advice for thriller authors?
Read, of course, but don’t feel like you have to read every new release or everything that’s hitting the bestseller lists. Read Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett. Find the first mystery novel you fell in love with as a kid (The Westing Game!) and dissect it. For each chapter write down what questions are being asked and what questions are being answered. It’s a great way to map out how information is passed to the reader. Each answer should lead to another, bigger question, and each question should raise the stakes. Also, don’t sacrifice your characters for the plot. That’s not to say don’t kill them. Absolutely kill them, but make sure the reader cares about them first, otherwise their deaths are meaningless. Imbue your characters with every ounce of humanity you have, so their peril becomes the reader’s own.
Your work is often praised for clever plot twists. Do you have any advice on writing a page-turning plot twist?
Take a lot of showers. All of my best plot twists have come to me in the shower. Bonus advice: you’ll know you have a great twist when it feels surprising yet inevitable.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for new authors?
I could talk about the volatility of the industry or getting used to rejection, but I think most new authors are aware of those challenges. The hardest thing to learn, in terms of craft, is how to balance the dichotomous states of writing and editing. To write something good, you have to wrench it, bloody and vulnerable, straight from your gut. But to edit it into something truly great, you have to let other people into the process and become totally clinical about your work. See it as a reader would. It helps to remember the writing is for you and the editing is for everyone else.
What methods of book marketing do you find the most effective?
I’m not great at social media or sending newsletters. To be honest, I should sign up for the WildMind course! I tend to focus on what I enjoy most—forging genuine relationships with book clubs, booksellers, book bloggers and fellow authors about our shared love of all things literary.
What struggles did you face in the writing/ publishing process?
Traditional publishing is a long and rejection-filled road. It took me two years to find a home for my first book, and months of querying for agents before I found one for my second book. There’s very little support in those early years before publication. I had to tell myself over and over again that the rejections would only make me better, and the truth is they did. I used feedback from the rejections of my first book to revise it to a point where I was able to sell it. That early adversity trained me to respond productively to critique and uncertainty.
How did you find your agent?
I initially searched for an agent for my first book, The Dragon Keeper, sending out dozens of query letters and getting dozens of rejections. Ultimately I was able to place it with a publisher called Ashland Creek Press (an amazing boutique press specializing in eco lit fiction) that was accepting unagented manuscripts.
When I finished my second book, I knew it wasn't a good fit for ACP and decided to query agents again. My mentor at Hamline University, Sheila O'Connor, told all of her students that if we hadn't sent at least fifty queries we hadn't even tried. So I sent fifty queries, five or so at a time, and every time I got a rejection I'd send a new one out. I ended up sending fifty-five in total and my agent was the fifty-first agent I'd queried. Her assistant read my sample pages, requested a copy of the full manuscript, and then passed it to my agent, who also loved it. She sent it to various editors, got a lot of interest, and eventually sold it to Emily Bestler Books, an imprint of Atria and Simon & Schuster.