Upcoming Agent Spotlight Interviews & Guest Posts

  • Rebecca Williamson Agent Spotlight Interview and Query Critique Giveaway on 7/8/2024
  • Sheila Fernley Agent Spotlight Interview, Critique Giveaway, and One-Hour Zoom Call on 7/29/2024
  • Erica McGrath Agent Spotlight Interview and Query Critique Giveaway on 8/12/2024

Agent Spotlight & Agent Spotlight Updates

  • Agent Spotlights & Interviews have been updated through the letter "K" as of 3/28/2024 and many have been reviewed by the agents. Look for more information as I find the time to update more agent spotlights.


Happy Wednesday Everyone! Hope you had a great holiday weekend. I am happy to report that I have done well my first few days with Anna Li at college and living alone. The house definitely feels different, and I'm grateful I still have my sweet dog with me. I keep telling myself that I can do this. And I know I can.

Today I’m excited to have debut author Kevin Sands here to share about his MG historical THE BLACKTHORN KEY that was recently released. I’m looking forward to reading it because it also has all the elements of fantasy I love.

Here’s a blurb from Goodreads:

 “Tell no one what I’ve given you.”

Until he got that cryptic warning, Christopher Rowe was happy, learning how to solve complex codes and puzzles and creating powerful medicines, potions, and weapons as an apprentice to Master Benedict Blackthorn—with maybe an explosion or two along the way.

But when a mysterious cult begins to prey on London’s apothecaries, the trail of murders grows closer and closer to Blackthorn’s shop. With time running out, Christopher must use every skill he’s learned to discover the key to a terrible secret with the power to tear the world apart.

Hi Kevin! Thanks so much for joining us.

1. Tell us about yourself and how you became a writer.

It’s been a long, strange path. Though I’ve been an avid reader since before I can remember, I never had any interest in writing when I was younger. In fact, if you’d have told me that I’d end up a novelist, I’d have thought you’d lost your mind! Instead, I studied math and physics in university. It wasn’t until later in life that a friend of mine that first got me interested in telling stories of my own. I started with screenplays, but I didn’t take it seriously enough at the time, so nothing ever came of that. It wasn’t until later, after I really buckled down and got to work, that I started writing novels and finally realized that this was what I wanted to do.

2. I'm like you. I never thought I'd like to write. Where did you get the idea for THE BLACKTHORN KEY?

At the time, I was close to finishing a different manuscript, and it occurred to me that I didn’t really have a good idea for what to work on next, so I sat down and tried to come up with possible stories. Among others, I had this thought: Apothecaries are pretty cool. They work with potions, poisons, secret codes, and so on; it’s kind of a rich world that offers a lot of opportunity. So I thought I’d write about an apothecary’s apprentice, and maybe have some secret that people were willing to kill for.

Beyond that, I didn’t really know what elements were going to go in the story. I just sort of sat on that idea while working on other manuscripts until a couple years later when I was looking for something new to do and dusted it off. Most of the plot elements then came while doing the research for the book.

3. I love that your story is about potions and medicines, some of my favorites things in fantasy. Did you do any research into them or other parts of your world building? Share a bit about the world you created in your story.

Many weeks of research went into developing the book. Before I started, I wasn’t sure what I wanted the story to be: historical, fantasy, or a blend? So I started by researching different time periods, while simultaneously learning about apothecaries. I narrowed the time down to London in the 1660s pretty quickly. Largely, this was because Restoration London was such a rich time for storytelling: the return of Charles II to the throne after the fall of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, the conflicts, plots, and conspiracies, the level of technology, the liveliness of the city, and so on basically made it too good a time to pass up. As an added bonus, we have lots of detail of that time from primary sources like Samuel Pepys’ diary, so I felt I could draw on that research to help bring the time period to life.

4. Sounds like it was fun research. People always talk about the importance of a character’s middle grade voice and getting it right as a writer. Did Christopher’s voice come easy or hard to you?

I knew who Christopher was going to be while I was plotting the story, so the seed of his voice was there
from the start. Bringing it to life was a different matter! I struggled with this in the early drafts, so I did what I always do when I’m stuck on some element of craft: read other novels that do it well and see what I can learn. From those, I realized how I could make Christopher express himself better, and the next draft was transformed. Learning that, I think, put the last needed part of the manuscript into place.

5. That's what I like to do too when I get stuck. Did you plot out THE BLACKTHORN KEY or did you create the storyline as you went? Having you made any changes to your plotting process from writing this book?

I plot everything—and I mean everything—in as much detail as possible. Before I even think about writing a single word, I figure out not just the scenes themselves, but how they’re put together. Literally every event, clue, character attribute, etc. gets noted in a giant list of bullet points several pages long before I start. That then becomes the document I work off of while writing the first draft. I do alter things when I realize they’re necessary, and of course later drafts may require changes, but by and large the story I plotted remains the same. I’d say about 95% of the final draft of The Blackthorn Key was the same, structurally, as my original notes.

I barely plotted at all back when I started trying to write, because I was impatient to simply get into the story. That was a mistake; I’d end up about two-thirds of the way through with an absolute mess. It wasn’t until I changed into a detailed plotter that my stories actually started coming together. Now I wouldn’t work any other way.

6. Share something you learned from working with your editor. What tips do you have for the rest of us on working with editors?

I think my editor has given me a better sense of recognizing that elements that don’t currently work in the manuscript can be made to work. Like many authors, I tend to be a harsh critic of my own writing, so there have been a number of times where I’ve just discarded ideas—or entire manuscripts—because I felt they weren’t up to snuff. My editor’s much more measured, and like all the best editors, has a great sense of what a manuscript could be, and how best to get it there.

As for tips for working with editors, the biggest one I can give is to make sure you sign with an editor who shares your sensibilities as a creator, while still having the skill and drive to make you better as a writer. Anyone who gets an offer should make sure they have a conversation with that editor and ask point blank what changes that editor believes the manuscript needs. From there, you really want to make sure you’re on board with whatever changes the editor wants. It’s true that you don’t necessarily have to make those changes, but if you’re having disagreements from the start, that doesn’t bode well. It might be the hardest thing in the world to leave an offer on the table and try your luck somewhere else, but an editor you’re going to clash with all the time is not likely to help you produce your best work—and remember that it’s neither of you, but the reader, who will be the ultimate judge.

On your end, of course, it’s always worth your while to really listen to what any editor has to say, and consider their suggestions seriously before disagreeing. As authors, we’re typically the worst judges of our own work, so it’s best to take advantage of the valuable advice editors have to offer.

7. Yes, it is important to start out thinking your editor and you can work together. What was your road to publication like?

Pretty typical, I think. I might be a bit unusual in that I didn’t have any interest at all in writing when I was younger; I came to it later in life. Otherwise, like most people, I started out by writing terrible manuscripts and learning how to improve them.

I tried to get one manuscript published before I wrote The Blackthorn Key, but it didn’t have any takers. I sent small batches of queries to agents (6-10 at a time) and waited for responses before moving on to the next batch. That manuscript was rejected by well over a hundred agents over the next two years before I finally gave up on it. In the meantime, I worked on other books.

The Blackthorn Key was the next manuscript I wrote that I thought might have a shot. This time, I wasn’t willing to wait; I sent it out to more than seventy agents at once. I got a much better response with this one; it took three weeks to get the first offer of representation. After five weeks, I had four offers, and chose my agent from among them.

He suggested a few minor changes, mostly adding some backstory, then submitted the manuscript to publishers a couple months later. From there we had a lot of interest, and I ended up signing with Aladdin, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, for North American rights. Puffin UK got the UK rights, and there are twelve translations in the works so far.

8. Most people would say it isn't good to send so many queries at once. Glad it worked so well for you the second time. You live in Toronto. Are you facing any challenges in getting the word out about your book in the United States?

None at all. My North American publisher is American, so they’re promoting the book in all markets. In fact, they’ve already brought me down twice to the U.S. for promotional events, and I have a U.S. tour and several more appearances planned for after the book’s released.

Even if that wasn’t the case, I don’t think where you live matters all that much anymore when it comes to marketing and publicity. For the traditionally published, it’s mostly about who your publisher is, and what kind of reach they have (plus the size of their budget). Most of this stuff is done from afar anyway, and with the internet, it’s easier than ever to connect with potential readers.

9. Awesome how supportive your editor is. What are you working on now?

The sequel to The Blackthorn Key! The first book ends right before the summer of 1665, which is when the Great Plague of London decimates the city. We’ll rejoin Christopher during the worst part of this epidemic, where he finds himself embroiled in a new mystery. There’ll be more codes to decipher, more potions to make, and more traps to set—and avoid! Plus, we’ll see some old friends, and meet a new enemy. As for who those are, you’ll have to wait and see!

Thanks for all your advice, Kevin. You can find Kevin on Twitter at @kevinsandsbooks, on Facebook at facebook.com/kevinsandsbooks, or at his website, kevinsandsbooks.com.

Kevin's publisher, Aladdin, generously offered a copy of THE BLACKTHORN KEY for a giveaway.  To enter,  you need to do is be a follower (just click the follow button if you’re not a follower) and leave a comment through September 26th. If your e-mail is not on your Google Profile, you must leave it in the comments to enter either contest.

If you mention this contest on Twitter, Facebook, or your blog, mention this in the comments and I'll give you an extra entry. This is for U.S.

Here's what's coming up:

Next Monday I have an interview with debut author Heather Petty and a giveaway of her YA mystery LOCK & MORI .

Wednesday next week I have an interview with agent Moe Ferrara and a query critique giveaway.

The following Monday I have a guest post by debut author  Lee Mackenzi and a giveaway of her YA steampunk THIS MONSTROUS THING.

Hope to see you on Monday!


Beth said...

So glad to hear things are going well with Anna Li off to college. Good luck to both of you!
Congratulations to Kevin on the publication of this charming book! (No need to enter me in the contest since I'm not in the U.S.)

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Sending it to so many at once paid off. I bet the research for the book was a lot of fun.

Christine Rains said...

Happy to hear you're doing good with Anna Li at college. I'm enjoying my days to myself with my son at school, but I still have 13 years before he's college aged! Congratulations to Kevin. Research is one of my favorite parts of being a writer.

Eisen said...

Very inspiring interview. I would love to read Kevin's book! :) Thanks for hosting the giveaway. I've tweeted about it too:

Crystal Collier said...

The last potions story I read was The Real Boy. (Highly recommended.) Kevin's book sounds fabulous.

Glad you're surviving the Anna Li-lessness. Sending cheese and chocolate your way!

Kristin Lenz said...

Congrats, Kevin! It's great to see your book taking off. Your advice about working with editors is also applicable to agents.

Leandra Wallace said...

Apothecary shops in stories are always intriguing to me! And I'm glad to know some ppl do send out tons of queries at once. I'm planning on doing that the next time I query too. =)

Brenda said...

Love the sound of an Apothecary shop with all its potions, poisons, and adding in some secret codes as well. Sounds like an interesting story, especially one with all those historical details too. Congratulations on its release. Glad things are going well for you Natalie and hope Anna Li is enjoying school.

David Powers King said...

Good to meet you Kevin, and great interview as always, Natalie. Loving the premise of this book. :)

Cherie Reich said...

Congrats, Kevin! “Tell no one what I’ve given you.” -- That line makes me want to read more about the story. :)

M Pax said...

Sending you positive energy to get through your transition, Natalie, and pack your life with things to look forward to.

Congrats to Kevin. Apothecaries are cool. I can see why you'd be attracted to centering a story around one.

Anonymous said...

I think potions are intriguing and I've always liked the word "apothecary." I've also mass queried like that before.

Christine Sarmel said...

I LOVED The Blackthorn Key. I'm very much looking forward to the sequel. Who doesn't love a good dose of Plague?

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I plot everything as well.
I admire those who can capture a middle grade voice. It was difficult for me to do it with a young character in my third book.

S.P. Bowers said...

Hang in there. It's a huge transition but It will get easier, eventually.

This sounds like a great book. MG novels really seem to be booming right now. I'm glad of that because my son is a voracious reader. I'm glad he'll have a great selection as he gets older.

Nicola said...

Fantastic interview! This book sounds right up my street - as we Brits would say. I am definitely going to get my hands on this one. Congrats Kevin!

It's a weird feeling after sending our siblings off to college/uni but hang on in there. You will begin to enjoy having the house to yourself and you can be proud of everything you've done for Anna-Li. She will do great! And so will you!

Kevin Sands said...

Thanks, everyone!

Doing the research for this one was a lot of fun; it's such a great era. It's interesting to look back now and see how much research *didn't* make it into the book. I'd estimate I included maybe only 5% of what I learned. As a writer, you're always tempted to jam as much cool stuff about your world as you can in there, but this is one of those (many) places where you have to kill your darlings. If it doesn't advance the story, out it goes.

I did feel at the time that the mass query was a bit of a risk, but honestly, I'd had it with the waiting. I also felt like I'd learned enough about querying itself from the previous manuscript, which got good responses from good agents; it was that manuscript that was the problem. But I definitely wouldn't recommend mass queries to a writer new to the process--too many ways to stumble.

Liz Brooks said...

I'm always fascinated by people who didn't like writing when they were younger, but eventually decided they did, because I've pretty much always known that I love writing. But wow, seventy queries at once--I'm so glad that went well. But I think I much prefer the standard batch of six to ten.

Thanks for sharing, and thanks for the giveaway! I tweeted about it.

lindalou said...

I love the cover! The story sounds intriguing also... The apothecary shoppes angle is very interesting. Thanks for the giveaway!

lindalou said...

AND I tweeted the news of this giveaway too! https://twitter.com/linda_lindalou/status/641940429882138624
Thanks again!

Greg Pattridge said...

Sounds like a great story Kevin has written. Don't think I could ever plot to the extent he does before writing. Quite fascinating.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the advice on choosing an editor, Kevin. It's important to have a connection to the person you are entrusting with your work. Good luck with the Plague!

jaimiengle said...

Sounds like a really fun story. Count me in for the drawing! Good luck with your release!

Michael G-G said...

It's interesting to read about a writer who came to writing later in life. Usually we're all "I've known I wanted to be a writer since I was four..."

Glad that Anna Li's move to college and your transition to living alone has gone well, Natalie. Hugs.

(Tweeted: https://twitter.com/MGMafioso/status/641999389477597185)

Danielle H. said...

Congrats on your book. Thanks for sharing your writing process with us! I tweeted https://twitter.com/dhammelef/status/642000583021363200

whispering words said...

I really enjoyed this book and am looking forward to the sequel! Also thanks for sharing the ins and outs of your writing experiences, I'm sure many people find this really helpful, I know I do :)

Rosi said...

Ah, the empty nest isn't so bad. Glad you are surviving. Fascinating interview. This book sounds absolutely terrific. I keep saying I won't put my name in any more contests for books, but I can't resist this. Thanks for a chance to win. Thanks for the post.

Carina Olsen said...

Gorgeous interview sweetie :D Thank you both so much for sharing. <3 I'm so so curious about this book. It seem awesome :D Looks so cute.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like a really fun book! :)

Stina said...

Awesome interview and great advice about the editor before accepting an offer.

mshatch said...

The Blackthorn Key sounds like fun. I love potions and I love history!

DMS said...

I just saw this book on another blog yesterday. It sounds awesome and I love MG books. It was fascinating to learn about Kevin and his path to publication. I am glad that sending his query out to so many agents worked in his favor. Much faster than the 1-2 at a time that I had been told when I was querying. Can't wait to read this one and thanks for the giveaway.

Empty Nest Insider said...

Great interview, and excellent points about getting along well with the editor before working together, though I'm sure things can change during the process. Natalie, I'm glad you're holding up well while your daughter's at school. It really does get easier in time.