Signing With A Dream Agent + His Tips for Success

by Diana Urban, author and Jim McCarthy, agent

Diana:

A couple of months ago, I finished edits on a YA thriller called The Last Hour. It’s a cross between to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and Abigail Haas’s Dangerous Girls — nine teens get locked in a room and must choose someone to kill within an hour, or else they’ll all die.

It was the most challenging book I’ve written — it’s dual timeline, with alternating flashback chapters dropping clues about whodunit and who the victim will be, and there are twists and turns aplenty. So I was really proud of it, and my CPs thought it was very marketable! However, I’d been planning to indie-publish — my traditional publishing journey had been fraught with dead-ends, and I was eager to get my books into readers’ hands. But after some cajoling from friends and CPs, I did some soul-searching, and decided to try for agent #3. Traditional publishing had been my dream forever, and if this book was my best shot, I wanted to take it.

This time around, my top priority was to sign with an agent who was truly excited about my project. After all, excitement is contagious, and I hoped that a stoked agent could get editors fired up to read. That meant I had a lot of research ahead of me — I wanted to find agents whose interests closely aligned with The Last Hour. Ideally they’d also have a some great sales under their belt. I already knew Jim McCarthy was one of my dreams agents based on his stellar sales record, and also because his clients are super happy working with him, including one of my good friends.

The first stop on my researching mission was MSWL — it consistently has more information on agents’ interests than the bio/about pages on their websites. I had two main goals here:

  • Personalize each query. Agents get dozens of query letters each day, so I wanted to make mine stand out by showing why I thought they’d be interested in reading my book.
  • Find more agents. I already had a shortlist of “dream agents” (including Jim) based on sales and reputation, but also wanted to find more agents with relevant interests whom I hadn’t thought of yet.

 

I started with the agents on my shortlist, and scoured each of their MSWL pages to (1) ensure their interests matched my project and (2) take notes for the query letter. For example, on Jim’s MSWL page, I noted that he was looking for “a super fun mystery” and that one of his favorite movies is Clue, which is much funnier than The Last Hour, but is another fantastic locked-room murder mystery (and is also one of my favorite movies, so, you know, fate and stuff).

Next it was time to find some more agents! I searched Twitter for #MSWL + terms relevant to my book. Here are some of the ways I refined my search, with examples of what I searched for:

  • Comp titles And Then There Were None, Dangerous Girls, We Were Liars
  • Comp authors – Abigail Haas, E. Lockhart
  • Plot elements – locked-room mystery, murder mystery
  • Themes – bullying, death, PTSD
  • Tone – dark, creepy, mysterious, scary
  • Genre/subgenre – YA, YA thriller, YA suspense

 

When I searched for “#MSWL And Then There Were None” my jaw literally dropped (and I do mean literally), because this popped up:

 

Each ManuscriptWishList.com profile has this great button! Click to see that agent or editor’s #MSWL tweets.

Not only was this an exact match, but look how enthusiastic he was here! I mentioned this MSWL match in the subject line of my query to Jim, as well as in a personalized paragraph at the top of the query. He asked to read the full manuscript right away. Yay!

(Sidenote: After finding this tweet, I realized I should also search for shortlist agents’ Twitter handle + #MSWL, because they might tweet off-the-cuff wishlist items not included on their MSWL bio page.)

A few weeks later, I got my first offer of representation from a different agent (who was another #MSWL match, by the way… this site really does work). But the following week, my jaw was back on the floor when I received a voicemail from a mysterious 212 number, and it was Jim asking me to call him back…

Jim:

I have a pretty thorough MSWL page, but I also tend to throw out tweets every so often when I see something I think could be a novel or something pops into my head. When I receive queries that cite my link on the website, I tend to remember what I said I was looking for. But there’s this wonderful charm about receiving manuscripts based on tweets. Sometimes I just think, “I said that? That DOES sound like something I want!” That’s pretty much what happened here!

In retrospect, I remember someone telling me at the time I tweeted it that because of Gretchen McNeil’s novel TEN, which was a contemporary adaptation of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, I would have a hard time finding and selling something else that also comped to it. It had been “done.” The wonderful thing about Diana’s manuscript (or, rather, one of the wonderful things about it) is that it’s comparable to the Christie in tone and scope, but it’s not an adaptation or a retelling. She was able to see the underlying similarities her novel shared—why it would appeal to a Christie fan despite its extreme differences in terms of plot and (pardon the pun) execution.

Diana’s query was flawless. She personalized it so I knew that she specifically wanted ME to consider the novel for very good and very distinct reasons. That’s priceless—not because it flatters the agent but because it speaks to a level of seriousness on the part of the author. They have done their research. They know not only that they might be a fit on my list, but why. We use these sites and hashtags because we really do love certain genres or tropes or themes, and when someone takes the time to get to know what we’re looking for and can express why they think we might be a match, that query is already so, so far ahead of the majority of the pack. Sure, sometimes our #MSWL mentions come back to haunt us, and we receive 700 queries referring to the same single request, and we’ve already found a book that fulfilled that need, but more often than not, a match there is very likely to be a pretty close match to our interests.

Let me get back to Diana’s query, though. Yes, it was targeted and specific. It was also well-written, clear, and concise. But also? Can we look at this line again? “Nine teens get locked in a room and must choose someone to kill within an hour, or else they’ll all die.” I saw that and was ALL IN. What an idea! What stakes! What a fresh and exciting take! Immediately my head was spinning—how does a group react to these stakes psychologically? What would I do? Was what I think I would do what I would actually do?! Who are the people?! What’s going to happen?! Immediately, my brain was off and running. When people talk about high concept novels, this is what they mean. It is a straightforward idea that lends itself to all sorts of different considerations before you even know the details. I was hooked, and I hadn’t even been introduced to a character yet.

Does every high-concept book work? Of course not. The query made the book an insta-request, but then it had to live up to the expectations of such an exciting premise. We all know what happened: Diana DELIVERED. She not only pulled off an intricate and surprising take on the concept that she presented, but she offered up sharp writing, a group of characters that each seemed fully developed and deeply considered, and she made the whole concept feel real. She plumbed the depths of her characters psychologically to figure out how they would each react to the various twists and turns, and she delivered an ending that (and this is key) felt not only fully rational AND surprising, but which made complete contextual sense and didn’t feel like a cheat. The characters don’t get miraculously saved at the last minute. There’s no deus-ex-machina. She told me someone would die in this book, and she delivered. She didn’t cheat. And that mattered a surprising amount to me.

So what else is there to say? I’m thrilled to be representing her on this deliciously exciting thriller. I’m grateful for #MSWL and that it allowed her to find me. And I can’t wait to get this out into the world and start sharing it more widely. I have lots of ideas for this book. Now I have the chance to act on them. What’s better than that?

Diana:

When I returned Jim’s call and he offered me representation, I was pretty quiet during the first half of the conversation, mainly because I was too busy grinning ear-to-ear! He expressed a lot of what he wrote above over the phone, and it was so apparent to me that he really got my book. He referenced specific things he loved about it, and was so clearly excited, which is exactly what I was looking for in an agent.

I’m incredibly thrilled to have signed with Jim, and excited to see what the future will bring. For many of us, publishing is a long road that requires a ton of determination, persistence, and patience. So it’s wonderful that tools like #MSWL exist to make that journey just a bit easier, and I’m so thankful that it helped me connect with my dream agent.

_______

Diana Urban is a marketer and fiction author. You can find her @DianaUrban and http://dianaurban.com

Jim McCarthy is an agent at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. You can see his MSWL page here.

Dark, Weird, and Powerful

by Ben Grange, L. Perkins Agency

In my “I’d like the next” section of my MSWL page, I list three stories that to me, represent something impactful in human nature. And yeah, those three stories are in visual format, not the printed word, but if I had found their equivalent in books, those books would be on that list. I say that I want something dark, something weird, something powerful.

Darkness in storytelling, to me, has a deepness that I don’t think a lot of people understand—or at least, they don’t understand what I mean by it. I get a lot of people saying, “Oh, you mentioned you’re looking for something dark, I think you’ll like my book about [ritual satanic sacrifice, etc.].” Yes, that topic and topics like it are extremely dark, but the descriptions I usually see don’t get me nearly as emotionally involved with these stories as I need to be in order to ask to see more of the work.

Take a look at the example I use for what I mean when I say I’m looking for something dark—Over the Garden Wall. It’s a Cartoon Network mini-series, and I highly recommend it. In it, a boy named Wirt and his half-brother Greg are lost in the woods and try to find their way out but are pursued by a beast who wants to trap their souls in edelwood trees and burn their life forces to sustain his own. It’s creepy, dark, and emotionally rich. It explores the subconscious in a style similar to Alice in Wonderland. There are dark things in every subconscious, and those are the dark things I want to read about. The kind that haunt the part of you that you don’t explore while you’re awake.

Now, weird and quirky. It took me a long time to be able to admit to myself that I like weird things, and to start admitting it to others as well. I was a kind of closet nerd all through school, never really letting on that I liked weird things (and by association was weird myself). But there are a whole lot of people out there who also like weird stuff, and there’s a market for media that appeals to them. Take Adventure Time for example. Every episode is packed with the most bizarre stuff you’ll see on TV. Things don’t have to make sense in that show, and that’s okay. That’s probably why so many people love it. I like when things don’t make sense—it keeps me on my toes. However, that’s not to say that everything should be confusing. You still need to ground me in reality (i.e. we know that Jake is a dog and that Finn is a human).

I don’t think weirdness or darkness do much good if they’re not somehow linked to human emotions. When I watch Adventure Time, I get attached to what’s going on, and want Jake and Finn to succeed on their adventures. In Over the Garden Wall, I’m gripped by the blend of light-heartedness, family tension, creepiness, and darkness in each episode.

When I think of emotionally powerful stories (especially for children) that aren’t afraid to get into the nitty gritty of life, nothing comes to mind more than Kubo and the Two Strings. It deals with mental health, death, betrayal, self-doubt, coming-of-age, family dynamics, forgiveness, memory—so many elements that blend so well together and form a truly spectacular film. There are weird things about the film (a human transformed into a beetle, a human transformed into a monkey). There are dark things about the film (death of Kubo’s parents, creepy aunts who chase them across the world, a garden of eyes at the bottom of a lake (which is both weird and dark)).

So yes, like I said before, these stories are all told in a visual format. But I want to read something that combines the elements from all three of them and delivers a truly enthralling book. There’s a place in the literary world for something as quirky and weird as Adventure Time. There’s a place for something as dark and rich as Over the Garden Wall. There’s a place for something as powerful as Kubo and the Two Strings. And I want to be the one representing those kinds of books. Something dark, something weird, and something powerful.

P.S. It’s worth noting that all three examples I gave share the common thread of the fantastic.

You can see Ben’s MSWL profile here: http://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/mswl-post/ben-grange/

Why I Want The Next Insecure–for the Literary World

by Amber Oliver, HarperCollins

I’m not much of a TV watcher, I must admit. One of my favorite lines to say to my mother whenever she asks me about a funny commercial she’s recently seen, is to say “I don’t have cable.” Despite the fact that I do have subscription services to Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and the like, the cable bit (which, in her mind, translates to not having television at all) is so humorous to her that it’s become a running joke between her and my older sister.

That said, I do have a handful of television shows that I do watch, namely, HBO’s wildly popular show, Insecure. I have yet to read Issa Rae’s, (the star of the show) books, but in Insecure, she certainly shines. She’s quirky, hilarious, and a college graduate, but is also unapologetically black. Her character is, to say the least, a breath of fresh air. And, that’s also true for the rest of the cast. They are all fully realized, young African-American characters, with unique personalities, careers, aspirations, hobbies, and relationships. Race is simply a natural part of their lives, rather than the focal point or an issue to confront or resolve. I haven’t seen a show quite like this and it’s clear that it has filled a void that some people didn’t even know existed. Insecure has resonated with so many people–young, old, white, black, poor, rich–and I think its universal themes and multicultural cast is the key.

While having this kind of show on-air is a huge step in the right direction, as an editor, I’d love to edit an upmarket commercial book in the vein of Insecure for the literary world. I’d love a main character like Issa, or her best friend Molly. I’d love to see characters who have careers and how they navigate the workplace as person(s) of color. I’d love to see plot lines that explore multicultural perspectives in contemporary and accessible settings. I’d love to see a tight-knit group of friends figuring out the world together. I’d love to peel back the curtain of these characters lives and learn something about their cultures. I’d love to see characters who code switch.

In other words, I’d love to read the perspective of diverse characters—whether it’s regarding ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality, etc.—from own voices, in book form. I want to see books about and by people of color thrive just as well as other books because the characters are real. I want them to thrive because the voices and representations are authentic. I want them to thrive because the writing is at once beautiful and evocative. I want them to thrive because the book’s themes, at its core, are so relatable that people could immerse themselves in that world, as easily as they have Insecure. And, I’d love to be the person to breathe life into these kinds of books and help them get the attention they deserve.

 

Amber Oliver is an Assistant Editor at Harper, Harper Perennial, and Amistad imprints at HarperCollins Publishers. She is a native New Yorker, born and raised in the Bronx, and is a graduate of The City College of New York, with a Bachelors in English and concentration in creative writing. She was a Women’s Media Group Fellow of 2015 and is currently a mentor in the Representation Matters Mentorship Program and Find Spark. She enjoys art, music, fashion, activism, dancing, traveling, writing, and of course, reading.

Jade City: a MSWL Success Story

by editor Sarah Guan (Orbit/Hachette Book Group), Jim McCarthy (agent, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management), and Fonda Lee, author of Jade City 

Fonda Lee, author of Jade City (photo by Elena Rose photography)

Sarah:

I joined the Orbit editorial team toward the end of 2016, and immediately set about hunting for that perfect first acquisition as I began to build my list here. I wanted a project on which I could hang my hat, which I could point to and say, “This is what I’m all about. Agent friends, give me more of this.”

MSWL gave me a way to ask for exactly what I wanted, and I wasn’t throwing away my shot. I nonetheless floundered a bit trying to distill everything I love in a book down to a tweet. I love ambitious, sprawling, deep epic fantasy. I love cities. I love an excellent fight scene, an art form perfected by Asian martial arts films. I love thoughtful takes on colonialism, modernity, and empire. I love diverse casts, non-Western cultures, meaningful QUILTBAG representation. And, perhaps selfishly, I wanted to see myself in a book like this.

Not exactly 140 characters.

And then, this popped up in my timeline, and I thought, Yes. This.

 

I shouted about it on Twitter. I sent it out into the wilds of the #MSWL hashtag. I crossed my fingers and hoped it would catch me something amazing.

And lo and behold, what it brought me was better than I could ever have dreamed of.

 

Fonda:

For more than two years, I’d been working on a novel called Jade City. It wasn’t my first book—I’d written three published and soon-to-be-published young adult science fiction novels—but Jade City was my first novel for adults, and a passion project unlike anything I’d attempted before. I had a vision of what I wanted to create: a fantasy saga that married modern Asian history and culture with epic gangster intrigue, martial arts, and magic, and was ultimately about family and choices.

It was the most ambitious thing I’d ever done. I wrote and revised, I showed it to my beta readers and my agent, Jim McCarthy, who gave me excellent feedback and told me to keep going. I revised some more. I set it aside for five months while I worked on another book. I knew this manuscript was some of the best work I’d ever done, but I wondered if it was saleable. Maybe it was too different; maybe I was deluded and no one else would think this concept was as awesome as I did.

Ah, writer’s doubts!

In December of 2016, I sent Jim the completed manuscript and crossed my fingers.

Right around the time I hit send (I’m not kidding, it was either that day or shortly after), my friend and beta reader (fellow sci-fi author Curtis Chen) saw Sarah’s tweet and forwarded it to me, with, “Have you seen this?!”

I stared at the tweet in disbelief and mounting excitement. How was it possible that someone I didn’t know, an editor at Orbit, no less, had described my work for the past twenty-eight months in such precise terms? She’d basically given me my own pitch line! (Okay, so my book is more 1970s-equivalent than 30s, but still.) I’m sure my fingers shook a little as I forwarded her tweet to Jim.

 

Jim:

As an agent, I like to play my cards pretty close to my vest. Nothing in this business is guaranteed, but when Fonda sent me the earliest draft of what would become Jade City, I just knew how special the project was, which comes with its own anxieties. Firstly, my client was bringing her A-game to a brand new genre and age group, so I damn well better make sure I’m giving it my level best editorially. Secondly, as much as I wanted to scream, “FINISH THIS NOW!” I was well-aware that Fonda had another book under contract. Although I wanted her to direct all her attention to the bright, shiny, new thing, it’s literally my job to make sure that projects under contract are delivered on time and in their best possible form. So rather than scream from the rooftops that she was crushing it, I sent Fonda some feedback with the suggestion that she keep going. Looking back at those emails now, I’m honestly a bit proud of how cool and collected I kept it while still being encouraging.

I waited for the manuscript with bated breath. But I only checked in once, right after she delivered the book that was contractually due. And looking back at that email, I can only laugh: “Will you be returning to JADE CITY? I find myself hoping so–I do love that novel.” Inner monologue: “FINISH THE BOOK, FONDA, I NEED TO READ AND SELL IT!!!!!!” Happily for me, she replied that a full draft was about two months out. She ended up being even faster than hoped. I got it on 12/21 and emailed her on 12/22 to say that the first third was brilliant. That same day, Fonda wrote to show me Sarah’s tweet.

It was kismet. The stars had aligned. Our office closed the next day for the holidays, but in early January, we were up and running, and the manuscript was ready to send out. Sarah was number one on my list of editors because she had come so aggressively close to describing the book exactly. As I told her when I sent it, “I’m sorry I can’t offer the 1930’s, but…”

The rest is history: Sarah came to the table with a strong offer and even stronger enthusiasm. Her vision for the book matched Fonda’s. It was a perfect match—the right editor, the right author, the right house, the right time. And here’s a part of the story I don’t tell often: I had discussed Fonda with a different editor at Orbit before Sarah started working there—in an “in case Fonda writes anything in the adult space down the line” kind of way. Had Fonda not sent along Sarah’s #MSWL tweet, I wouldn’t have known that there was a perfect match at the house for exactly this novel and could have ended up sending it to a different editor, and then who knows how things would have played out? Thanks to that one tweet, the book went to an editor who connected with it passionately and whose feedback and enthusiasm have been invaluable. There is nothing that makes me happier as an agent than being able to put those kinds of connections together. Well, maybe bestsellers make me happier. So…back to you and your team, Sarah.

 

Sarah:

I’m always a little wary of agents promising they can make all my dreams come true. So, when Jim—whom I’d never met—reached out to me in January, just weeks after my #MSWL tweet, writing, “I have exactly what you’re looking for, I promise,” I tried not to get my hopes up.

Then I read his pitch. And then, I stayed up until an ungodly hour on a weeknight reading Jade City. I couldn’t believe my eyes: it was everything I’d wanted, and more. I came into the office the next day with a caffeine-and-adrenaline glint in my eye and told all of Orbit editorial, “Drop everything and read this submission. We have to buy this.”

The other editors, fortunately, loved Jade City almost immediately. The publicity and marketing department was on board from the get-go, and so was the UK team. Before long, my publisher called me, saying, “Let’s try to take it off the table by Friday. Go make them an offer they can’t refuse.”

 

Fonda:

When Jim told me Jade City was officially out on submission, I settled in to wait. Submission is a nerve-wracking but often painfully long process for authors, so it’s best to focus on other work and try not to think about it… too much.

So my heart gave an unusual stutter when I saw Jim’s number pop up on my phone two and half weeks later. Not only did Sarah want the book, she wanted a trilogy, and Orbit wanted to release it later this year.

Needless to say, I did not get anything else done that day. Or that week.

I had only a short time to respond, but the decision was a no-brainer. Orbit’s track record and reputation are top notch, and here was an editor who was passionate about exactly what I’d written, had read the submission immediately, and had gotten her entire team on board to put forth a strong offer. These are the sorts of scenarios authors dream about.

Looking back on all this now, I still can’t really believe it happened this way. I’m not a particularly romantic or sentimental person, but it honestly did feel like fate. I’ve heard it said that there are three ingredients to success in publishing: perseverance, talent, and luck. I think if you do everything you can when it comes to the first two, sometimes the third comes calling. Sometimes it takes the form of a #MSWL tweet.

JADE CITY is available for preorder! Check it out here: https://www.hachettebookgroup.com/titles/fonda-lee/jade-city/9780316440868/

You can see Jim’s MSWL page here.

Our First #TenQueries Podcast!

Our first #TenQueries episode is now live! John Cusick, agent at Folio Literary, was kind enough to let us record him reacting to his inbox in real time.

Just like #TenQueries on Twitter, he described what he was seeing–but you can hear in his voice when he gets surprising mistakes (and great queries!).

If you’ve ever wondered if agents are making up the stories of what’s in their inbox (hint: if anything, they don’t talk about the strangest things they receive), this is the episode series for you!

While we have him, we ask about his experiences with live pitches–and the awkward and wonderful moments he’s had during these meetings. What works for him? What can you do to improve your interactions with agents? Listen in!

As always, all of our episodes are FREE, and available to download (on iTunes) and stream (on SoundCloud).

Please note that there is sometimes a slight delay on iTunes, but you can subscribe, and have the episode delivered to you in a few hours–or listen now on Soundcloud.

Join A Live Query Discussion Group!

We’re so excited about next week’s Query Workshop! This is a new program brought to you by The Manuscript Academy, #MSWL’s educational sister project.

We’re adding a new feature that we’re super excited about–small groups for live, face-to-face feedback in an educational setting. We’ll go over each query in a group up to ten, and see how we can improve each query, while going over the universal lessons in each.

Want to join? Register for our Query Workshop, if you haven’t already–and we’ll send you a link to claim your spot (free with admission to the workshop–in addition to the five classes, five live events with our faculty, and more). Discussion groups are available:

  • Monday, October 9, at 6:30 pm EST
  • Wednesday, October 13, at 6:45 pm EST
  • Thursday, October 14, at 6:45 pm EST
  • Friday, October 13, at noon EST

If these fill up, we’ll add more.

Hope to see you there!

Persevering Through the Process

by Jennifer March Soloway, agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency, Inc

Writing is hard; publishing is even harder. There is a lot of rejection in this business at every level, and agents get rejected all the time too. It takes guts, thick skin, and sheer tenacity to keep going. However, I don’t get discouraged; in fact, just the opposite.

Every time I get a rejection, I see it as an opportunity to learn more about the market and what works or doesn’t. If I am lucky enough to get feedback, I use it to strategize next steps. For example, maybe I need to rethink my submission list. Or maybe the project would benefit from a round of revision. Or maybe the project needs some key changes to better position it for the market. And in some cases, maybe we need to wait and try selling a different project first.

Seeing rejection as information gathering can also be applied to getting an agent, applying to a residency, or selling a book. No matter what stage of your writing career you happen to be in, you will face rejection. Maybe you can’t find an agent. Maybe your third book isn’t selling. Maybe you didn’t get accepted to a writer’s workshop. Maybe you just received the worst review ever—and it was from your critique group (who are supposed to be your friends).

With every rejection comes a choice: Do you keep going or do you give up?

The answer? Keep going! Don’t give up! The good news is writing is a skill one can learn and improve with practice. If you don’t achieve your goal right away, don’t look at it as failure. Don’t worry that you’ll never get there. You can and you will succeed if you persevere. The outcome isn’t always what we initially envision, but success is possible. The key is hard work and perseverance.

That’s not to say that rejection doesn’t hurt, because it does. Especially when you’ve been working forever on a project, and you thought you finally nailed it. Rejection can feel awful. It’s horrible. I don’t like getting rejected, and I hate to write rejections to writers. I want everyone to realize their potential and fulfill their goals.

When I first started working for our agency and reading queries, I thought a lot about what worked, what didn’t, and why or why not. Because we receive so many submissions, we don’t have that much time to spend on each one. We only get to see a small sample of the work, and we have to make a decision fast. I thought about what pulled me into a story and why.

Some submissions are easy no’s. For example, if someone sends me a non-fiction proposal for an adult book about economics—a category I don’t represent—I’m going to pass. And some are easy yes’s. If I love it right away, I’ll request a full.

For those projects that do fall within our agency scope, nearly everything has potential, but 95 percent of the projects I receive are at too early a stage for me to consider representation. The drafts tend to be too raw and in need of more work. Often, I can tell the author is still writing to discover, or if they have discovered the end, they have yet to rework the beginning and middle.

But what about the “yes” manuscripts? What makes them stand out in a sea of submissions? Over the last four years, I’ve realized the projects that captured my interest had at least three of the six following traits:

  • A dynamite opening line (or lines).
  • A strong, engaging voice.
  • An intriguing premise that somehow feels different from anything else I’ve seen.
  • An opening scene filled with drama that has enough context to immediately ground me in the world and pull me into the story.
  • An irresistible character with high stakes and agency.
  • An additional story thread that is also compelling.

And the really great ones have all of the above.

So, say you’ve queried me, and you didn’t have a great first line. In fact, the story really doesn’t get going until page 15. It’s been eight weeks, you haven’t heard from me, and based on our submission guidelines, you know no answer after six weeks means no.  Worse, you queried ten other agents, and you haven’t heard back from anyone.

The bad news is I only get to see the first 10 pages. The majority of your novel might be brilliant, but if the first 10 pages aren’t working, I will never know.

The good news is I only get to see the first 10 pages. If I pass, and you rewrite those first 10 pages and resubmit in six months. I might read the project in an entirely new way. I might think your revision is amazing. It might be the same project, but if you rewrite it, I may love the new version and offer representation.

Revision can be magical. You will get there. Keep writing. Keep fighting the good fight.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Read. But don’t just read, read like an editor. Think about what works and why. Think about what doesn’t work, why it doesn’t work, and what it would take to make it better. Do this with every story you read, watch or hear.
  • Share your work with others. Listen to their suggestions. Try to find other people who can give you constructive feedback. Editorial feedback is an art, and it is often hard for others to communicate why something isn’t working. Listen to their feedback anyway. If they find something confusing but cannot articulate what or why, think about how you could clarify the piece.
  • Read other people’s drafts. You will recognize in their writing the same mistakes you are making but cannot see in your own work. Think about what might resolve the issues you see and how that writer might elevate the work. The same editorial suggestions might also help your own projects.
  • Go to conferences and workshops and literary events. Meet as many agents and editors as you can. Note what they like and don’t like. Listen to their advice. Pay attention to their style: how they present themselves, and how they interact with others. Think about who might be the best fit for you.
  • Allow yourself to experience the process and make mistakes. Learn from your mistakes. You will grow and evolve and improve, I promise!
  • If you get feedback from an agent (or an editor or reader), consider what they are saying. Literature is so subjective, and what one person loves, another person might loathe. However, if you get the same feedback from more than 2-3 people, think about how you might address the issue they raise, and consider revising accordingly.
  • Take your time to revise. If you receive a revise and resubmit request, that means the agent or editor sees potential in your project but feels the draft needs more work. Trust me, they won’t ask you to revise and resubmit unless they like it.
  • Most of all, celebrate and enjoy your victories, the large and the small. If you write a great scene, celebrate. If you find that perfect phrase, celebrate. If you think of a dynamite plot twist, celebrate. If you get an agent, celebrate. If you sell a book, celebrate. If a reader sends you fan mail, celebrate!

And if you still need an agent, query me.  If I pass, don’t feel like you’ve ruined your one big chance. With me, no means not yet. Revise and resubmit it to me in six months.

I might just fall in love with the story and offer you representation.

My MSWL page is here: http://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/mswl-post/jennifer-march-soloway/

Details on how to submit to me can be found here: http://www.andreabrownlit.com/how-to-submit.html

For my latest conference schedule, craft tips and more, please follow me on Twitter: @marchsoloway

 

 

 

The Making of a Bestseller: How an #MSWL Tweet Connected a Singapore-based Aspiring Writer with a Chicago-based Literary Agent and a #1 Best-Seller was Born

Jo Furniss is the author of All the Little Children, a suspense novel about a frazzled working-mum whose family gets caught up in a disaster.

Danielle Egan-Miller is a literary agent and president of Browne & Miller Literary Associates.

This is their story.

JF: I’m a former BBC journalist, but I’ve been an ex-patriate for many years so my career has taken a meandering course. Originally from the UK, I’ve lived in Cameroon and Switzerland, and I currently reside with my family in Singapore.

DE-M: I’m an established literary agent based in Chicago with a very deep clientele. I’m usually swamped with queries, not to mention with referrals. I’m highly selective about the new clients I take on and only very occasionally do I go looking for something.

JF: I started writing the story that would eventually become All the Little Children in 2012 as part of an MA program. I wanted to write about the light and shade of motherhood, about isolation, about surviving the toughest test I’d ever faced—giving myself to someone else. At some point, I read a blog post where a fellow mum described having her first child as “my own personal apocalypse.” That struck a chord—everything changes when you have kids, life as you know it is gone; even when you survive and thrive, you are changed.

I also started to feel annoyed with books and movies that made so much of “one man’s struggle to survive.” How difficult is it to survive when you’ve only yourself to think about? What if you’re struggling to survive and then your kid starts melting down about a lost shoe or no ketchup? I thought there was an inherent darkness, black humor and horror in the “mom-pocalypse,” as I started to call it!

DE-M: In January 2016, I had a conversation with an editor about what was on her wish list (ironically) and somehow we ended up talking about “preppers” – i.e. people who compulsively prepare for impending disaster. The sad truth was that neither she nor I had a home deeply stocked with emergency supplies and we were both parents. This spiraled into us pondering what lengths a mother might go to in order to save her kids should a disaster arise (and wouldn’t that make for an amazing book?).  This general idea stuck with me.  So, on February 21, 2016, I tweeted the following: Looking for a “mom saves her family after a disaster” kind of novel #MSWL. I think this was one of the very first #MSWL tweets I ever sent out into the universe. I didn’t know what kind of disaster, what kind of mom, or even what genre I wanted, I just knew I was willing to look at a whole bunch of queries that might come close to hitting on this basic theme.

JF: By late 2015, my manuscript was in the best shape I could manage and I started submitting to agents. Being British with a novel set in England, my internal compass pointed to London. So I started sending out to UK-based agencies. But my American friend, Melissa Nesbitt, who was submitting her historical novel to agents in the US, was all over this thing called #MSWL. One day, Melissa forwarded me a Tweet; an agent in Chicago is looking for a book just like yours! And she’s got a great profile on Publishers Marketplace, you should query her…

DE-M: One day after I tweeted my manuscript wish, I received a query from Jo Furniss.  >>>Dear Ms. Egan-Miller, I spotted your Twitter post from earlier today regarding your ‘manuscript wish’ for a novel about a mother saving her family. I have recently completed an upmarket commercial fiction…which offers a uniquely female take on the survival thriller – putting motherhood into the foreground of a dark setting…>>> The author noted that she was a British ex-pat living in Singapore. This sounded exactly like the type of story I was hoping to find. Distance be damned, I immediately asked to see the full manuscript.

JF: I’m not a spiritual person, but I am a runner. There are times when I hit a rhythm and the ground itself seems to propel me forward, as though I’m being swept along by a friendly tide. It’s very odd, but pleasing; passive and active at the same time. When I sent my manuscript to Danielle, I had a similar sense of flow. I knew this was my best opportunity yet—an agent who liked my premise—all I could do was hope she liked my writing too!

DE-M: The author submitted her manuscript immediately and I and my staff read it instantly. On February 25 – four days after my apparently magical #MSWL tweet – I sent Jo an email that began with >>>> Good morning, Joanne – I am going to cut right to the chase: I’d like to offer you…representation from Browne & Miller.  We love it and would be thrilled to represent you and this manuscript.  I have to say, we rarely move on something so quickly but your novel and your writing have really grabbed us in all the right ways and we think it and you are very salable…>>> This stands as the quickest query-to-submission-to-offer-to-new-client conversion I’ve made in the past 15+ years as an agent.

JF: That email stopped my heart for a beat and it restarted at a much higher rate than is advisable. My ‘flow’ was replaced by a sense of splashing about like a drunk person in a fountain. There have been wonderful moments since—the offer from my publisher, the selection of my book for Kindle First, the first messages from readers—but this moment was euphoric.

DE-M: After several weeks spent on editorial finessing and polishing, Jo’s manuscript went out on submission and it ultimately landed exactly where it was destined to: with the editor with whom I’d had the “preppers” discussion. It’s been kismet at every turn with this project.

JF: From the first day that All the Little Children released, I started receiving messages from readers. I hadn’t expected that—reviews, yes, but not personal emails. That’s quite powerful; to work on something for years, never knowing if it will find an audience, and then have people take the time to reach out and say they’d connected with the characters. I was so chuffed.

DE-M: Jo’s experience has been a publishing “Cinderella story” of the first order and though she is incredibly talented, has worked remarkably hard, and is entirely deserving of the successes she’s enjoying, the fact is ALL of this became a reality for her because of one #MSWL tweet that put us in touch despite the 10,000 mile distance between Singapore and Chicago. Talk about serendipity!  Powerful stuff, right?

JF & DE-M: To #MSWL, we offer a deep-felt Thank you!  You’re doing great work and you’ve created an excellent tool that’s helping to make lots of authors’ (and agents’ and editors’) dreams come true. We’re believers!

 

All the Little Children, Jo Furniss’s debut novel, released September 1, 2017, from Lake Union Publishing.  Amazon Prime subscribers received a sneak-peek as All the Little Children was an August 2017 Kindle First selection and subsequently spent several weeks atop Amazon’s bestseller list including time at #1 and landing at #16 on Amazon Charts for Most Sold.

You can purchase All The Little Children here.

Hooking An Agent

by Julie Dinneen, Agent @ D4EO Literary

Literary agents get a lot of query letters – some as many as hundreds a day. They have to make quick decisions about you and your book based purely on that one-page letter and the first few pages of your novel. So how can you make yours stand out from the crowd? A few obvious, often-repeated basics you should do your best to absolutely nail:

  • Follow an agent’s submission guidelines. This is obviously a no-brainer. Yet I’m amazed by how many people neglect to do it. Unless you’re J.K. Rowling, if you don’t follow an agent’s guidelines, you’re already setting yourself up for rejection. You’ll get better much results if you do your research.
  • Keep it brief. Because of the volume of queries they receive, agents sometimes skim query letters. They want to know, concisely: 1) what the book is about, 2) who you are and what you’ve done that relates to the book you’ve written, 3) what genre the book fits into and how long it is. Don’t bog down your query with too much extra information or a description of the existential quest you were on when you wrote the book. Those details will be told by your manuscript.
  • Make it shine. A query letter that’s professional, well-written and well-edited stands out. Because – and this is continually surprising to me – around half of them aren’t. If there are typos or formatting issues, it makes a poor first impression. Your query says a lot about who you are as a writer and what you’d be like to work with. If your query is messy, chances are your manuscript is messier. Agents are much more likely to pass.
  • Be impressive. If you have an online presence, agents will look at how well you present. It’s better to have no presence at all than a poorly-executed one. Self-published books with homemade covers and unimpressive rankings, for example, are not going to attract an agent. Neither is an outdated blog. You’ve taken the time to write a novel. Make sure you take the time to make your profile shine. If you need to hire a professional to help you create a swish book cover or a clean website, it can be well worth the investment. There are plenty of good, affordable options out there. Some of them are even free.

Agents request full manuscripts from a very small percentage of the queries they receive. At a guess, around 5%. How, then, can you become part of that 5%?

 

Agents need to fall in love with your premise.

Agents need to fall in love with your writing.

Agents need to fall in love with your storytelling.

(And/or agents need to fall in love with your book’s market potential.)

 

Acing this trifecta is, of course, a difficult thing to do.

 

Premise

You’re a writer. You’re creative and you follow the directions your creativity leads you. Which is fine. No one’s asking you to follow trends. My advice is this: consider your reader. Picture yourself reading your manuscript to a stadium of 10,000 people. Let’s say they’re all within your target demographic. Would most of them fall asleep as you read? Or would they see themselves reflected in your characters? Would they be riveted by your characters’ plights and relate to them on a personal level? The bottom line is this: agents want books that will sell. Readers, including us, need to connect.

 

Writing

This is immediate. This is the music of your words that sings, fascinates and enchants. Agents can usually tell within the first few pages if a book is offering a journey they want to spend 5-10 hours inside of. Like any reader, we can tell right away if we’re in good hands. If the writing feels clunky or derivative or the mind is already wandering (I haven’t checked my emails in over twenty minutes. I need to remember to pick up the dry cleaning. I really should call my mother…), then you still have work to do. If the voice feels like someone the reader doesn’t relate to or want to spend time with, or if there are 22 exclamation marks on page one, it’s probably going to be a pass. This reaction can be very subjective but, arguably, a well-written book will stand out, hook and engage. The best way to improve your writing is by doing these three things: 1) read, 2) read, 3) read.

 

Storytelling

Boring = cut. Kill those darlings. Get feedback from knowledgeable beta readers, critique partners and/or a writing group before you query agents. Readers want to feel emotionally invested in your story. If they don’t, they’ll put the book down. So, how can you make them care? If I could answer that question, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post, I’d be lounging on my own private island, Mai Tai in hand.

 

Let’s look at a few examples of bestselling books that hook their readers from the first paragraphs*:

 

  • Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints. Through rotting kelp, sea cocoa-nuts & bamboo, the tracks led me to their maker, a White man, his trowzers & Pea-jacket rolled up, sporting a kempt beard & an outsized Beaver, shoveling and sifting the cindery sand with a teaspoon so intently that he noticed me only after I had hailed him from ten yards away. Thus it was, I made the acquaintance of Dr. Henry Goose, surgeon to the London nobility. His nationality was no surprise. If there be any eyrie so desolate, or isle so remote, that one may there resort unchallenged by an Englishman, ‘tis not down on any map I ever saw.

 

This is engaging. It’s offering questions I want to the answers to. What’s Henry Goose doing? Why’s he  digging with a spoon and wearing those clothes? Where are we? An inventiveness of voice and language is already shining through in a very obvious way. I want to keep reading. And this book only gets better. Here’s another example:

 

  • I looked up because of the laughter and kept looking because of the girls.

 

I noticed their hair first, long and uncombed. Then their jewelry catching the sun. The three of them were far enough away that I saw only the periphery of their features, but it didn’t matter—I knew they were different from everyone else in the park. Families milling in a vague line, waiting for sausages and burgers from the open grill.  Women in checked blouses scooting into their boyfriends’ sides, kids tossing eucalyptus buttons at the feral-looking chickens that overran the strip. These long-haired girls seemed to glide above all that was happening around them, tragic and separate. Like royalty in exile.

 

This creates a scene and also a story. The writing is confident and creative and it immediately feels fresh and original. Who are these girls? Where did they come from and what are they doing? They’re part of a Manson-like cult this 14-year-old narrator gets seduced by? I’m hooked. Here’s another:

 

  • I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair—it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. I roll my eyes in exasperation as I gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. My only option is to restrain my hair in a ponytail and hope I look semi-presentable.

 

Would you have guessed that this book is a publishing phenomenon? Maybe it’s because this narrator is relatable. The writing is easy to read and has us wondering: who does she need to be presentable for? A hot billionaire with interesting preferences? This is a case of the premise hooking the reader as much as the very-accessible writing. One more:

 

  • Augie Odenkirk had a 1997 Datsun that still ran well in spite of high mileage, but gas was expensive, especially for a man with no job, and City Center was on the far side of town, so he decided to take the last bus of the night. He got off at twenty past eleven with his pack on his back and his rolled-up sleeping bag under one arm. He thought he would be glad of the down-filled bag by three A.M. The night was misty and chill.

 

Already there’s an ominous tone to this story. And there’s a lot of story here. We get a feel for who Augie is and what his life is like. In one short paragraph, we can already relate to his hardships. And there are questions we want answered: what’s he doing? From the title and genre we know what’s coming. But even without those clues, we get a feeling something bad is about to happen to Augie. So we keep reading.

 

All in all, agents want books with an exciting premise and with opening pages that make us drop everything to keep reading. We want to be drawn in by the language and emotionally engaged throughout. If you got one of those on offer, please query me 😊

 

My MSWL page is here: http://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/mswl-post/julie-dinneen/

My submission details can be found here: www.d4eoliteraryagency.com/p/julie-dinneen.html

And here: www.juliedinneen.com

Twitter: www.twitter.com/juliedinneen

 

*1) Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, 2) The Girls by Emma Cline, 3) Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, 4) Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Editor To Agent: Two Sterling Lord Literistic Agents Share Their Journey

by Elizabeth Bewley and Sarah Landis

Why did you make the switch from editors to agents?

SL: I’ve always been someone who goes out and looks for projects. I was an editor for 15 years, and I’m excited to find great writers and to work with them over the course of their careers.

 

EB: Like Sarah, I was an editor for 15 years, and my favorite part of that job was the lasting relationships that I forged with authors. As an agent, I hope that I can be an integral part of an author’s career. I know that I can steer them towards rewarding and profitable opportunities.

 

How did you meet?

SL & EB: We met at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, where we were both editors. But, even before that, we had crossed paths over the years. Once we started working together at HMH, we realized that we shared favorite authors, books, and even a few friends in common. We’re always each other’s first reader when we are evaluating a promising new manuscript.

 

How do you work together?

SL & EB: We will have our own client lists, but we bounce ideas off of each other and closely collaborate. When an author signs with one of us, they can expect to have a team backing them every step of the way towards publication and beyond.

 

What kinds of projects are you looking for?

SL: Middle grade and YA across all genres. I tend to like books that are high-concept, and I don’t shy away from darker stories. I’d love to find the next Adam Gidwitz or Lisa Graff. Basically, middle grade with heart, humor, and magic. I’m on the look-out for great YA fantasy set in a world that I haven’t seen before and YA speculative fiction. And, I’m a sucker for anything set in the South, having grown up in Virginia.

 

EB: I’m looking for middle grade and YA, as well. I love contemporary, realistic stories, especially those that feature a really great romance or characters offering a unique perspective on growing up. Authors who craft stories and characters with emotional depth are on my wish list. I also enjoy narrative nonfiction and memoirs centered on young people.  

 

Why is working with an editor-turned-agent advantageous for authors?

SL: I hope that I bring a wealth of publishing knowledge. I know that I won’t be able to turn off my editor’s brain, so any author that I work with can expect to get editorial expertise and agenting expertise.  

 

EB: Working with a publisher for the first time—or even the 10th time!—can be confusing and overwhelming. Having been on the other side of the desk, I can walk my clients through each step of the publication process. And, I can hopefully be a useful ally for the editors that I work with, too. I know all of the hard work that goes into their job.

 

How did you choose to join Sterling Lord? What it’s like at the SLL office?

EB & SL: We wanted to join an established agency that had impressed us when we were both editors. Sterling Lord Literistic is one of the best agencies in the business, with a history of representing award-winning and bestselling children’s book authors. It’s a full-service agency that will give our authors an advantage. Our office, located downtown near Wall Street (the new hot spot for publishing!) is very collaborative, busy, and friendly. It’s exciting to be working with agents who represent so many of our favorite authors and to be surrounded by a library of bestselling SLL books.

*

Elizabeth Bewley represents young adult and middle grade fiction and nonfiction. Before becoming an agent, Elizabeth held editorial positions at HarperCollins, Intervisual Books, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, where she was an Executive Editor. Elizabeth has worked with bestselling and award-winning authors including Jennifer E. Smith, Estelle Laure, Claire LaZebnik, Linda Williams Jackson, Ashley Herring Blake, Sophie Flack, Kass Morgan, Josh Sundquist, Alyson Noël, and Nic Sheff, amongst others. You can see her MSWL profile here.

Before joining Sterling Lord Literistic in 2017, Sarah Landis worked as an editor for fifteen years, holding roles at G.P. Putnam Son’s, Hyperion Books, HarperCollins Children’s Books, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers. Over the course of her career, Sarah has had the pleasure of editing many talented authors including the likes of: Jodi Lynn Anderson, Kasie West, Claudia Gray, Michael Buckley, Eileen Cook, Erin Summerill, and Megan Shepherd. Sarah graduated with a BA in English from the University of Virginia. You can see her MSWL profile here.