SATURDAY SIT-DOWN with Literary Agent Lana Popovic

For our second Saturday Sit-Down, I’m thrilled to welcome Lana Popovic of Chalberg & Sussman, who is here to talk about common query mistakes, bland opening lines and the importance of voice.

Welcome, Lana!

What are some of the most common mistakes you see in queries?

This is actually a tougher question than it seems—I see such a massive quantity of queries that all mistakes seem common! But I think the ones to focus on avoiding are the following:

  • Giving us too much information. Any query longer than four paragraphs is getting skimmed at best, and skipped over entirely at worst, because our eyes, guys. Our eyes look at so many words and it hurts when there’s too many. There’s so much wonderful material online on how to craft a succinct but tantalizing query, so brushing up on that is crucial.
  • Giving us too little information, or playing hide the ball. I just want to know what the project is about, because if I don’t, how do I know I want to take the time to read it? It’s important to remember that many, if not most agents receive tens or hundreds of queries a day, and if I don’t have a clear grasp on what’s happening in a particular query, I just don’t have the time to spend on parsing it out.
  • Infusing the query with too much personality/personalization. Leave your bio until the end (and even then, leave out details that are not pertinent, such as that you modeled at some point in life, or that you’re named after a famous author; oddly, I’ve seen both of these multiple times, and they always make me wince a little), and don’t spend an entire paragraph chatting about all the things we have in common—a sentence of that is fine!
  • Reviewing your own book. If the query language is doing what it’s supposed to—1) Painting a clear picture of your story, and 2) Demonstrating how lovely your writing is—then you don’t need to spoonfeed the agent with adjectives like “heartbreaking,” “gorgeous,” and “unique.”

What are some of the most common mistakes you see in a writer’s sample pages?

Plunging into action without giving us any time to invest in the main character, and the flipside, plunging us into pages of backstory before we even have a chance to invest in the story, are both quite common. Bland first sentences (“Russell opened the door.”) and opening with a flat line of dialogue (“Who is this?” Samantha asked.) are as well.

For the last few years, many YA agents have shied away from worn-out subjects like vampires, werewolves and dystopians. Is there anything you’re seeing a little too much of in your inbox lately?

I see a lot of contemporary, realistic novels without a particularly strong hook, or focusing on subject matter that’s been covered very extensively. The death of a parent or a sibling (big brothers, usually, for whatever reason), physical abuse, eating disorders, bullying—all of these are powerful and important themes, but they’ve been handled so thoughtfully by so many authors that if a writer is covering this ground, the treatment must be exceptional and the voice has to be nothing short of gorgeous.

Is there anything you’d LOVE to see in your inbox?

I would love to see a take on Outlander for the YA audience, as well as fantasy with a strong, beautifully fleshed-out Middle-Eastern or Ottoman setting or twist. Also, if someone managed to translate the lushness and action of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series to YA, I’m already buying that book a ring. And a Tiffany’s key. And a basket of kittens. Whatever that book wants, I’ve got that catalog.

If a writer doesn’t grab you in the query, first line or first paragraph, will you keep reading to see if it picks up, or toss in the towel then and there?

I cherrypick pretty extensively when it comes to queries, and because I have the benefit of seeing ten sample pages along with the query, if I request I know I’ll be reading at least the first ten. Voice is paramount to me, so even a very strong premise with well-developed characters won’t keep me captivated if I’m not absolutely, head-over-heels, telling-all-my-friends in love with the writing. Which doesn’t mean the language should be overwrought! By way of example, Nova Ren Suma, Francesca Lia Block, and Laini Taylor are some of my favorites when it comes to wonderful voice.

Finally, here at Coffee Cups, every Thursday is #ThrowbackThursday – what is one of YOUR favorite books from childhood?

I read a lot of adult books when I should have been reading YA; Stephen King and Diana Gabaldon were definitely happening a good bit earlier than they ideally should have been. But when it comes to YA novels, I must have read I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith at least ten times. And I’d read it again today. What a gorgeous, unique, heartbreaking book 😉

Lana Popovic holds a B.A. with honors from Yale University, a J.D. from the Boston University School of Law, where she focused on intellectual property, and an M.A. with highest honors from the Emerson College Publishing and Writing program. Prior to joining Chalberg & Sussman, Lana worked at Zachary Shuster Harmsworth, where she built a list of Young Adult and adult literary authors while managing foreign rights for the agency.

You can learn more about Lana and her agency here. If you’d like to send her a query, email lana (at) chalbergsussman.com with the first ten pages of the manuscript included in the body of the email.

Thanks, Lana!!

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