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The following is a query critique. Comments, suggestions and discussion are welcome and we hope you join in. I can only offer one opinion. The author of the query and I would love to hear yours!
Dear Ms. Ruth,
I would be delighted to submit for your consideration, [redacted], my dark, romantic women’s fiction novel (there is no such thing as a novel that isn’t fiction, so you only need to write “fiction” or “novel.” This is a huge agent-peeve) which is complete at just under 104,000 words.
A thirty-two year old musician assistant, Trista Hart knows she needs to find a way out of the nocturnally persuaded world of her best friend and boss, Jaxon James.
Nocturnally persuaded. This is a creative turn-of-phrase, and I love those, but in a query, I just want to get the low-down on your book. Making me think too hard will aggravate my totally abused brain and turn it off. I’m not sure what nocturnally persuaded means because I’m not familiar with your book and its themes, and I’m not willing to try and figure it out because on the heels of your query are thousands of others and I’ll go in search of something with more clarity. Sometimes the simpler the language, the better, even though it doesn’t show your literary prowess.
But no matter how dark that route (what route? Are you referring to his world, the way of out his world?) has become lately, he and his band Sin Pointe are her family and she’s not prepared to desert them for Jaxon’s cousin, Lucky Mason, if it’s just going to take her down another of life’s pot-hole littered highways.
Who says she has to desert them, and who the hell is Lucky Mason? That came sailing out of left field. Why are Lucky ad Sin Pointe mutually exclusive? Also, nit-pick: the words “pot-hole littered” irks me. Littered would mean someone has dropped something negligently. I think you can find something more accurate.
She has valid reasons to question Lucky and his beloved south—having experienced at an early age the sometimes hypocritical underbelly of the region’s good manners and charm.
What does the south have to do with it? In fact, what does Lucky have to with anything? I’m asking: what does Trista want? What is keeping her from getting that? How does she endeavor to solve that conflict?
Her hourglass has been turned upside down and now with Lucky’s heartfelt proposal before her, (ah ha! Why are we discovering now, after you’ve confused us and given us every reason to stop reading, that this was a proposal?) she has to decide one for the other at the most inconvenient of times—just as Sin Pointe’s tour is taking off and on the heels of a horrendous late night attack on her and Jaxon that leaves her sure of only one thing…
It’s time for Trista to be her own savior.
Well I, for one, am not sure of anything and that’s the problem with this query. What I really want to know is what the problem is. If Jaxon is her best friend, why would he or his band prevent her from marrying (was this a marriage proposal?) Lucky?
I would reject this query because it lacks compelling conflict. I wonder why can’t she just have both? Her job, her best friend and family, and Lucky? What’s preventing that from happening? I worry that the answer is nothing and your manuscript has a huge, glaring plot hole that would mean it needs an overhaul.
When this query was diced here, the problem was that we didn’t know enough. We needed a better description. Now, we know a bit more, but we still need to know what the conflict is.
While as yet unpublished, I am a member of RWA, my local WRW chapter, and the fantastic women fiction writers group Waterworld Mermaids.
I greatly appreciate your time and consideration and hope to hear from you if my work seems a good fit.
Happy Valentine’s Day! And now, a book review about love:
Book critic, William Deresiewicz, in The New York Times, wrote that Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot was not about marriage, or even love at all, but like his other novels, was primarily about “the drama of coming of age.” This review was laced with acidic undertones of condescension and a just-below-the-surface but obvious dislike of most of Eugenides’ work. As an aside, I am never completely smitten with an author’s work. There is always something about it that I don’t like. You don’t spend your life criticizing the written word and retain the ability to turn that off. Regardless, I will never write a negative book review. I don’t believe it is helpful to anyone, least of all the author. If I really looked down upon that author’s work, my agenda would be better served to keep mum about the author altogether. The worst review is no review, in my mind.
Anyway, Deresiewicz’s interpretation of this novel was precisely my own…at first. I felt exactly the same way. I’d listened to the audio performance, and after the last words, I looked around at the NJ Turnpike and thought, and? On the surface, this novel is about a trio of college kids who graduate and then try and figure out life, love and opportunity. Nothing actually comes to pass. Nobody appears to make any sort of satisfying transformation. In fact, nobody gets what they want, either. Then, sitting in traffic, I listened to a short, accompanying interview with Eugenides, which I thought would shed some light on what he was trying to do with The Marriage Plot. It ended by the time traffic started moving, leaving the novel unilluminated. I lit a cigarette and wrote off Eugenides, deciding not to read the next book he publishes a decade from now (he writes a book every ten years or so.)
Never before have I found the aftertaste of a novel to be more powerful than the novel itself. In the days that followed my reading of The Marriage Plot, the novel sank into my brain like a slow wave of awareness overcoming me. Bits of it would return and smack me in the face as I looked at love and life around me. Deresiewicz entirely missed the point. This was not a novel about young people finding their way in the world, it was a novel about the consequentiality of love in our time. The marriage plot refers to the structure of a Victorian novel in which marriage was the be-all and end-all. The finality of marriage in that time was what made it so important and so dramatic and so weighty for the characters to get married or to pursue that. It was the ultimate goal of love, a move to secure financial goals, societal goals and familial expectations. The love itself was really sort of secondary. Now, Eugenides subtly but brilliantly asserts in his novel, the consequentiality of our love is not what we do with it, but what it does to us. With marriage stripped of its weight, becoming a sort of romantic, knee-jerk impulse or a strategic financial move, love takes on a life and weight of its own. While love was once a vehicle used to travel to marriage, it is now a vehicle to travel to transformation, which is not a destination or an end-goal at all, but an on-going journey. It’s about the journey, not really where you end up, which is why in Eugenides’ novel, nobody ends up anywhere. They continue their journey.
The novel’s female character, Madeleine, is stifled by her love. She becomes an in-service, overshadowed mistress to her boyfriend, Leonard, who has a significant mental illness. She’s intelligent and beautiful and could probably have any man she wants, yet because she loves Leonard, she installs herself under the crushing weight of the man and his illness. Leonard himself appears to be perfectly healthy in the beginning of the novel, but when he falls in love with Madeleine and realizes that this has an actual affect on him—it changes his behavior, his thoughts, his motivations, his life—he falls into his mental illness and appears to swim about helplessly and almost indulgently in the throes of it, Madeleine’s service to him only bolstering and enabling that illness.
The third character, Mitchell, spends almost the entire novel in love with Madeleine. The very idea of her motivates him to travel around the world, to alter his perception of people and of life and love, and then at the very end, because love is no longer locked into the finality of marriage or the weight of that institution, this changes for Mitchell and, now motivated by the love he used to feel for Madeleine, his journey takes a turn and continues.
The Marriage Plot was a powerful snapshot of what has happened to love, or rather its impact, and the author makes no definite comment about the consequences of that. Like a poet, he seems to prefer to leave his assertions up to interpretation. Its impact still hits me sometimes, as I recall a phrase or a situation and apply it to my own life or those around me.
In the novel, Leonard is a scientist studying yeast cells, which are interesting because they closely resemble human sex cells. During a heated argument with Madeleine, he makes the observation that these yeast cells, when in crisis, immediately separate as a matter of course because it is easier to protect themselves as single cells in the face of crisis. I would have paid full cover price just to let Eugenides drop this one exquisite metaphor on me.
The following is a query critique. Comments, suggestions and discussion are welcome and we hope you join in. I can only offer one opinion. The author of the query and I would love to hear yours!
Dear Ms. Ruth,
I would be delighted to submit for your consideration, Sidewalk Flower, my dark, romantic women’s fiction novel which is complete at just under 104,000 words.
In Sidewalk Flower, a musician’s assistant determined to leave the seedy grit of Rock Star, California for the downhome love of her southern boyfriend must endure one last cruel night in her old world first.
Ironically, the above sentence, which serves as both the introduction to and summary of your book, is too long but doesn’t tell us enough. Unfortunately, the result of this is a shrug from me. I’m thinking, “So? And?”
My gut tells me there’s something interesting here. The title is intriguing, as is the main character’s vocation. You’ve got 104,000 words that you’ve attempted to sum up in less than 40. I’d like your query to be roughly 250 words, give or take.
I think I can speak for my readers, too, when I say I’d like to see a do-over!
While as yet unpublished, I am a member of RWA, my local WRW chapter, and the women fiction writers group, Waterworld Mermaids.
I greatly appreciate your time and consideration and hope to hear from you if my work seems a good fit.
You’ve queried widely. You’ve re-written your book a few times. No one wants to read it and no one’s listening to you. You’re shouting as loudly as your tiny voice allows, but the din of everyone else’s voice drowns your words. So what do you do? Hide your book under your bed and blame everyone else for not seeing your art? Give up? Maybe. Or maybe you become weathered to the tough world that is book publishing and you slog.
Recently, I received a comment on this blog from an author who was angry and hurt by the world’s failure to notice him. My heart sank for this author. I thought about that comment during my work day as I wrote rejection letters and joined my authors in their joy of getting published, during my 2-hour commute home, as I worked toward my master’s degree, during dinner and even as I put my kid to bed. I’m entirely too busy to let something that small irk me, but I couldn’t get that author’s frustration out of my mind. I can’t do much to help authors in this situation because the truth of the matter is, an author is the only person who has the power to amplify his own voice. My advice to aspiring authors: do all of the following to the absolute best of your ability and you will find success.
1. Love your work. Love it so much that you can’t not do it. Be obsessed with it. Live, breathe your work. Make it your devout religion. If you don’t passionately love your work so much that it defines who you are, stop.
2. Read. Read at least 30 novels (50 is better) in your exact genre. Make sure they are the best of the genre. Read them critically. What do they have that your book doesn’t? What does your book have that these don’t? What do neither of you have, but could? Then, read a few of the worst. Is yours better? Read as many relevant blogs as you can. Agent blogs, editor blogs, author blogs, blogs, blogs, blogs. Read Publisher’s Weekly. Check out Publisher’s Marketplace. Haunt the publishing industry by devouring every word written about it.
3. Write. Write part of your novel every single day, even Sunday. Blog. Tweet. Constantly.When you’re done with your novel, query agents with it. When you’re done writing your novel, write another.
4. Connect. Online, collect Twitter followers like nuggets of gold. They are. Tweet interesting things that others will want to re-tweet. That means don’t tell people your dog just got neutered. No one cares. When they do, all their friends might too and other people might be interested in what you say and follow you themselves. Then, when you need to market, you’ll have a captive audience of 1,000 people who share your interests. Write blog posts for others’ blogs, let other bloggers guest-post on your blog. Run a contest on your blog to spark interest. Then Tweet about it. Away from your computer, attend every writer’s conference you possibly can. Join a critique group and participate heavily. Submit your work to contests. Then tell everyone about it. Join every writer’s association, group and organization you can. Take every class you can on all things publishing and then network with all the people there. Attend all publishing events you’re able to. You should be able to find out about them from all your reading.
5. Improve. See opportunities to make your work better and let them sail. Always ask yourself how your work could be better. Because just when you think it can’t get any better, it can. Take criticism as seriously as you would a medical diagnosis. Because it is, to your book. Don’t discount the opinions of others. They are all expert opinions, because each critic–even that weird guy in your critique group whose own manuscript sucks–is the expert of his own tastes, and you have to market your book to wide tastes. Don’t hold on to what isn’t working. Trash what needs trashing, even if that means your whole book. Cut what needs cutting. Somebody (Faulkner? Twain? Both?) said, “Kill your darlings.” So, kill them if you need to. You’ll get over it and get stronger because of it.
All of the above, along with a day-job makes for a pretty busy person. And that’s okay. Because if you love what you’re doing, you’ll love doing it all the time. If you don’t love what you do enough to put that much energy and time into it, then put all of that time and energy into doing something you do love. Do all of the above and your work will get stronger and stronger, your voice louder and louder, until some agent hears you.
>I hate interviews. There’s something about being scrutinized like a bug specimen that makes me a little nervous. Go figure. I find myself giggling unnaturally, saying stupid things that don’t make sense and – oh, God – stuttering. My worst flaw in an interview is my horrible tendency to answer questions on a delay. If it is a telephone interview, the interviewer will inevitably say something like, “Is this a good time?” and I’ll just sit there for, like, an entire ten seconds and then say something ridiculous as a failed attempt at humor: “Yeah, this is a great time. I’m just driving.” Marvelous. Irresponsibility makes for a great first impression.
Interviewers, at some time or another during the interview, will ask if you have any questions. On my first job interview, I confidently lifted my chin and said, “No, I think I have all the information I need. Thanks!” Crash and burn. This response is the absolute worst to this question. The interviewer wants to know that you are interested enough in the position to ask questions. Any question will do. And, really, did I know everything about the position? Anyone who thinks they know so much about a position that they haven’t a single question to ask, is either way overqualified for the position or way too cocky to be given the job.
So this time around, when my interviewer asked very sweetly (she was really nice), “Do you have any questions?” I knew I had to come up with something. But I had forgotten to prepare a question and all my safeties had already been answered! So, pacing in front of my bookshelves during this phone interview, I hastily asked,” Can you recommend any reading I can do for background material before I start the internship?” I shut my eyes tightly and waited for the proof in the interviewer’s tone of voice that I had asked a stupid question. It came. She stiffly said, “No, I don’t think there’s anything that–” and then she paused. I opened one eye – was there hope that this question wasn’t so stupid after all? Yes! As she rattled off different blogs, websites, books and magazines I could consult, I opened the other eye and ran to my desk for a pen and paper. She kept going! There is so much information out there about publishing and this girl seemed to have all of it catalogued in her head! When she finally took a breath, she said, “Wow, that was a really great question. I’ve never heard that one before.” Grin from ear to ear on this end.
Note: some of the sources she mentioned were Publisher’s Weekly, Publisher’s Marketplace, Twitter, her company’s website and blog and Romantic Times Book Reviews, which have all turned out to be beyond informative.
I can’t say that I feel completely comfortable here at Touchstone/Fireside. I’m surrounded by wonderfully intelligent people which is a welcome respite from my usual days surrounded by immature students giggling about boobs and pot. For a while, I couldn’t quite put my finger on the source of my discomfort, but this week, I’ve finally realized it: I’m inadequate. All of the people I work for here are infinitely smarter, more diplomatic and more accomplished than I am. They use words that I don’t understand, like “writerly” (according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the definition of this is of, relating to, or typical of a writer. Now that seems really obvious.) and they are all so darn graceful. I often feel like I’m working with a bunch of Jackie Os! But despite how stupid and childish and clumsy and awkward they make me feel, they are all so wonderful. They are each a personification of a quality I wish to have. The editor-in-chief is power and influence, Danielle is intelligence, Michelle is grace, Lauren is style, Shawna is friendliness and tact, Zach is this accomplished coolness (if there exists such a word), Alex is composed competence. My problem, of course, is that I see these people not for what they are, but for what I am not. This must stop. I’m sure that these people have insecurities and shortcomings they have filed down along the way. I imagine them at home. I see Michelle crying hopelessly on her sofa, watching Sleepless in Seattle while eating ice cream in her pajamas. I see Zach standing in front of his fridge eating lo mein out of the carton with his fingers. Not because he’s a slob, but because he’s a guy. I see the EIC, the mega-editor, gardening on her hands and knees. I see Danielle in a very ungraceful fit of giggles while shopping with her friends. I see them all in situations that do not involve books and intelligence. Does it help? No. I’m still the one who didn’t go to Wesleyan or Columbia or wherever. I’m still the one who turns red anytime someone speaks to me. I’m still the one who knows nothing.
Where, you ask, do these feelings come from? Zach read my reader’s report on that awfully offensive manuscript with the trashy sex and unbelieveably cheesy dialog. In the email to which I attached my report, I told Zach that I found the entire manuscript incredibly offensive. I also wrote that despite my scant knowledge of the legal intricacies of book publishing, I didn’t think it was legal to publish something that offensive to that many groups of people. That was seven days ago, exactly. Today, Zach called me in to Michelle’s office to talk about my report. Nervously, I stepped into the office and had a seat. Michelle sort of sat and watched while Zach very diplomatically attacked what I had to say about the manuscript. Zach said if I was offended by what I was reading, I should not have read it. I told him it was my first project and I didn’t want to be a complainer. He then proceeded to say that before I deem something “illegal to publish” I should check my facts. The first ammendment is the foundation of journalism and publishing. Of course, he’s right. I was once the news and features editor of my school newspaper. Why hadn’t I considered this most basic of publishing tenets? Now, I feel incredibly stupid. Now, I can’t believe that I actually thought something would be illegal to publish. I wanted to jump out the window into Michelle’s beautiful and well-earned view. What an idiot!
Then, he told me that many published books contain profanity and are offensive to different races and different types of people. He had brought books along with him to show me. One was a joke book that was full of racial humor and profanity. Another was a book about lesbians. I wanted to tell Zach and Michelle where I was coming from, but I thought it would probably be in poor taste to argue with two senior editors. I still feel sort of bummed out, though, so I’ll just tell my argument here.
To me, the offensive manuscript was unacceptable because it wasn’t very obviously supposed to be offensive. The book Zach showed me, and other humor books of its kind are not offensive exactly because their covers and titles say to the reader, “Hey! Looky here! I’m a book that’s going to say offensive things in order to be funny!” The offensive manuscript’s title, as an example of how it’s not supposed to be funny, refers to one part of the book in which the children of the main character learn about decorator crabs and how they use pieces of their environment to cover up their sameness. The title is a metaphor for human behavior. That’s not funny. The book was about one man’s journey from uncaring attorney to avenger of social injustice. Also not funny. The profanity and offensiveness that peppered the manuscript, and probably amounted to at least half of the book, was out of place and therefore offensive. To exemplify my point here, let’s use a non-book-related example. If someone said “fuck” in a show like South Park, which is designed to be offensive, I can’t say I would be offended by it. In fact, I love South Park and own eight seasons of it. However, if I went to court for a parking ticket and the judge said “fuck” during the proceedings, I would absolutely be offended and confused, just like I felt while reading that MS. Damn! Why couldn’t I find those words? Where were they when I was stupidly nodding my head and mm-hmming while Zach looked down his nose at me and forced Michelle to watch?
Of course, later on, when my embarassment has cooled, it will occur to me that this experience is valuable. Next time I write a report – and Zach said he would send some my way – I will keep these things in mind and write a smarter, more educated and informed report.
Of course, my learning experience here – what Zach was trying to teach me – is that an editor can’t worry about his own personal feelings when reading a manuscript. He can’t let that sway his decision to publish the book because ultimately it doesn’t matter if he thinks its entertaining or stimulating or whatever. What matters in the end is whether or not it will sell. That’s why Zach brought the other books with him into Michelle’s office. Because he wanted to say that profane and offensive books absolutely do sell – to a certain audience. An editor, I’ve learned from this experience (thanks, Zach!) has to be completely objective, just like he would be on jury duty. If you’re part of the jury on a case in which someone is accused of rape, and you’re a rape victim, it is not appropriate for you to be on the jury and you most certainly will not be allowed.
Although this experience was embarrassing for me, I have to say I would not have it any other way because I’ve learned more in those five minutes than I have learned during my entire college career. And I hope all of you don’t make this mistake!
Evidently, I have proven to TF that my skill set exceeds that of a chimp, because this week I have taken a siesta from the deliciously mundane and tedious book-like tasks that used to be my only purpose here. The reader might think I’m speaking in oxymorons, but truly, I love the mundane work of this industry: photo-copying, emailing, mailing, logging submissions, filing, etc. These tasks are those that take little skill, so they allow my already-overworked brain to relax. Brain vacation, you might say.
But I’ve been allowed, beginning this week, to take on more important tasks. Now, the editors and assistants are commandeering me for “projects”. These projects are fascinating to me, the dork who finds such things fascinating, because I’ve been imagining for a long time now what my day-to-day experience in the publishing world will be like. For me to finally see the day-to-day workings here is comparable to one of those people who read Star actually seeing one. Giddy hysteria. I try to remain calm.
Shawna, Zach’s editorial assistant, started it all with a request to conduct some investigative work on a potential author. Basically, I just googled the author’s name, absorbed all of the information and spit it back out at Shawna in an email. She said thanks and that was that.
Apparently my skills as a private eye pleased her, because yesterday, Zach approached me with not one, but three projects. Sitting in his cushy office overlooking one of Rockefeller Center’s rooftop gardens, Zach asked me about my goals, how I landed myself at TF, blah, blah, blah. The first project was to find out information about Sig Hansen and his brothers, who are ship captains on the enormously popular reality TV show, Deadliest Catch. There was an awful lot of information and I made certain he got as much as I could give – even MySpace friend-counts. The second project was much like the first, with a different person, someone uninteresting and not famous.
Finishing those two jobs, Michelle, another senior editor approached with a new project. Maybe Zach told her I did a good job, maybe it was just a coincidence. I like to stay hopeful, though. Michelle is editing a baby-name book, which, by its very nature, has few selling points aside from the actual count of baby names. Expectant mothers will choose the book with the most names so they don’t miss the perfect name. Makes sense. Unfortunately, the book is almost finished and no one bothered to count the names. This is what I’m here for – the crappy task net. Anyway, Michelle took pity on me and suggested that instead of hand-counting all of the names in this three-hundred-page book, I could simply take a sample of pages, say 30, count all the names and multiply that by 10. Then, she would conservatively make an estimate. Smart lady. Unfortunately, I have this ridiculous tendency to open my mouth when it belongs wired shut – in the shape of nice, compliant smile. But since I’m a complete fool, I suggested back to Michelle that, since she had a count of all the base names (not variations, which are many), we could count the variations of each base name in a sample and average it. Then, we could multiply that average number by the number of base names. She looked very confused and after attempting to seriously consider my idiocy, she said very diplomatically and gracefully, “Well, let’s give this a try. If it’s not working and you feel there’s a better way, I would love to hear it.” At least then I had the sense to shut up. Her way was much easier anyway.
To make up for acting so crazy, I placed my results as neatly and comprehensively in an Excel spreadsheet, totaled it into subtotals and a grand total and emailed it to her with a smiley face. She thanked me both in person and in an email. Yay!
It went downhill from there, however. As his third project, Zach asked me to “take a look at a manuscript.” I didn’t really know what that meant and I didn’t want to ask, so I decided to wing it. I read the first three chapters of the manuscript, which were absolutely awful, and wrote down all my thoughts. Then, I emailed them to Zach. He has yet to get back to me. But, now that I’m reading further into the manuscript, I realize that some of my initial thoughts are set to rest by further information. Next time, I’ll wait until I’ve read the whole thing. Maybe that’s what the problem was. Or maybe he just wanted a simple, “I like it” or “I hate it” instead of three typed pages of the intern’s inexperienced, jumbled thoughts on a manuscript. I guess we shall see. At the moment , I’m completing yet another of Zach’s projects. I’m trying to log into BookScan and can’t. Fabulous. Now I have to show him how incompetent I can be and email him this problem. More next week.
>Because I didn’t know they existed at the time, I completed my first telephone interview without first having consulted any of countless resources on interview etiquette and procedures. At the time, I felt perfectly confident, having once worked in an office environment. (I worked for a small office supply company in high school) Wasn’t that enough? Apparently not, because I completely bombed that first telephone interview with Simon and Schuster’s HR department. When the interviewer asked me, “Why do you want to work for Simon and Schuster?” which is a very common interview question, I didn’t know what to say. Um, because you’re a huge publishing house in New York and I know it will look good on my resume? I didn’t say that, of course. I wasn’t that naive. I think I told her it was because Stephen King was one of my favorite authors, which isn’t the worst answer and not really the best either. I’m sure S&S doesn’t appreciate being summed up by the name of only one of their authors. Now that I’ve completed and internship in this industry, I have a firmer handle on what this interviewer was trying to ask. They like it when you know about the industry and the company to which you’re applying. Peruse the Internet for news reports and recent acquirements (books taken on).
The only experience on my resume at that time was my college literary magazine work. I expected her to ask questions about what kind of work I had done on the magazine, so I had my answers rehearsed and at the ready. But she threw me for a loop when she asked, “What would the advisor of the literary magazine have to say about you?” Um. I told her he would say he couldn’t have done it without me, which is true since I created that magazine, but this answer sounds way overconfident. Instead, I should have discussed specific qualities that were necessary in order to complete the work involved with the literary magazine. This would show the interviewer that I’ve put thought into that question, instead of providing a sweeping overgeneralization that sounds awfully contrived. A great resource for interview techniques and sample questions is “Can I Wear My Nose Ring to the Interview?” by Ellen Gordon Reeves, who is the resume expert at the Columbia Publishing Course.
After months had passed and I heard whether I had nailed the opportunity or not, I sent a thank you note to the HR (human resources) representative who’d interviewed me. She got back to me right away to tell me they still had a position, and would I like to come in for my second interview? Since I had read up on interviews and how to behave during one, I felt totally confident in the second interview, which was in person, and I did get the internship!