SATURDAY SIT-DOWN with Literary Agent Whitley Abell

Today I’m sitting down with the lovely Whitley Abell of Inklings Literary Agency, who’s here to tell us some common query mistakes, what makes her stop reading a manuscript, and what she’d love to see in her inbox. Welcome, Whitley!

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

 Not enough focus on the manuscript being pitched. Much too often, queries wax on about the author, their inspirations or the aspirations, and I go to the sample not knowing at all what kind of book I’m potentially looking at.

Not following directions. Like many agents I know, I ask that queries include the first 10 pages pasted in the e-mail body. We don’t ask this to be annoying; there’s just so much to read that we need the uniformity to keep the workflow going. I read a lot of queries on my phone, and attachments are a no-go. Unless I’m completely in love with the pitch, I’m very much more likely to pass without the sample than I am to reply asking for one.

Trying to pigeon-hole your project to meet a specific point on our wish list. I completely understand the desire to prove that this project is the one that we want, but it often feels like you don’t know your project as well as I would hope. If a manuscript fits our wish list item, then please do say so, but in general I’d prefer to have the pitch speak for itself and surprise me than to question how an author equated the two.

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

Too much exposition and not enough proofreading. Also, rule of thumb: don’t include your epitaphs and prologues.

For the last few years, many agents have shied away from worn-out YA 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 YA contemporaries that don’t have a strong hook or that focus on an already flooded topic or issue. I also see a lot of plain ol’, ordinary girls who just don’t see how beautiful/smart/generally awesome they are. When that’s the focus of the manuscript, there’s really nowhere to go. Also, fantasies pitched as the next Graceling or Throne of Glass. I know that Game of Thrones is huge right now, but epic fantasy isn’t really my thing. Plus, the market is well on its way to being thoroughly saturated.

In MG, I see a ton of ancient Greek and Arthurian retellings that don’t have a strong enough hook to set them apart. In Women’s, I seem to see mostly romances pitched as WF and several variations of “middle-aged woman who’s husband left for a younger woman…”, both of which just aren’t for me.

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

I’d love to see a good geeky YA thriller; something like Chuck or Ally Carter’s Heist Society series—only Simon’s P.O.V., and preferably with an awesome female protagonist with a great voice. The thrill of the heist, the hidden identities, the espionage… ah!

Not YA, but I’m always looking for a really good women’s fiction. This craving or women’s is very particular and rarely satisfied. I’d love see something like Rainbow Rowell’s Landline or Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette—a contemporary with heart and a strong, relatable voice, and an interesting hook. I’m also always on the look out for emotional historical. I still find myself spinning from Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites and Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden and The Distant Hours. That said, however, I’d also love to find a YA that impacted me in the way that those books did.

In general, though, I’d just love to be surprised; to find a great hook or a fascinating world, a real female protagonist, a story I can sink my teeth into, and, most importantly, a voice I would follow to the end of the world and back.

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?

 If I’m not sold on the query and first paragraph, I’ll read on an extra page or two before cherry-picking my way to the end of the sample. Voice is truly the most important aspect to me, and it is what I’m looking for in the sample. If I’m immersed in the writing, then I will definitely keep reading, but if it’s not holding my attention, I’ll more than likely stop and move on to the next query.

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

Growing up, I was big on children’s adventures (Harry Potter, Peter Pan, etc.), classics (Little Women, Anne of Green Gables), and Mary Higgins Clark mysteries (thanks mom!). But in terms of YA, I most remember Robin McKinley’s Outlaws of Sherwood and Celia Rees’ Pirates! I read those books over and over in middle school and high school, and loving the history and the kick-ass girls who showed the boys up over and over again.

***

Whitley Abell joined Inklings Literary Agency in 2013 after completing successful internships with Carol Mann Agency and P.S. Literary Agency. She graduated in 2011 BA in English and Creative Writing, and again in 2012 with a MAT in Secondary English Education, which basically means she can tell you anything there is to know about feminist literary theory and the Common Core Standards.

If you’d like to query Whitley, you can check out her wish list and submission guidelines here. While not currently open to submissions, she will consider queries referencing this post. Please send queries to whitley@inklingsliterary.com.

SATURDAY SIT-DOWN with Literary Agent Tina Schwartz

This Saturday, I’m sitting down with literary agent (and author!) Tina Schwartz of the Purcell Agency, who’s here to tell us her query pet peeves, what makes her stop reading a manuscript, and what she’d love to see in her inbox. Welcome, Tina!

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

Besides the obvious spelling or grammatical errors, the most common mistakes I receive in queries are:

1.) Not knowing your (the writer’s) audience*

2.) Submitting stories to me for genres I do not represent (which I post on my submissions page of my website).

3.) Submitting query to “Dear Agent” with a huge list of undisclosed recipients. This shows me the writer just made a list of every agent they found an email address for and sent one email to the complete list of them. That shows very little effort to me.

* An example of a mistaken audience is: telling me your story is for Young Adults (which is for high school aged readers, in my opinion) but the main character is 24 years old. Sure there may be a crossover appeal from YA to New Adult (NA), but in essence a story about a 24 year old belongs in the NA or Adult category.

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

The things that I see aren’t necessarily “mistakes” in sample pages, but more things that make me stop reading. If a manuscript has a huge amount of back story right up front, it bores me. Plus, a technique that is important for a writer to be able to do well is to be able to let a story unfold naturally without what some call “information dumps”. It’s the classic saying “show don’t tell” at play here.

Another problem with sample pages can be if a writer doesn’t get to the point quickly enough. For me personally, I request a query letter and three sample chapters. If by the end of the third chapter, I still don’t know what the story is going to be about — what the main conflict is going to be, then I rarely ask to see more.

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?

Personally I do not represent fantasy/sci-fi, and I get TONS of it! I believe that in nearly every interview I’ve done, people always ask me what I do NOT represent, and I say Fantasy/Sci-Fi, plus now, no picture books (since I have a full list of them right now). But every day, I seem to get at least one or two fantasy stories. It’s kind of weird. This shows me that many people don’t read about what a particular agent wants, they only see the agent’s name and email and send blindly to every agent they find.

[Side note: I’ve heard tons of people say “dystopians are over” but to me, dystopian seems like its own genre, not a trend. I think there will always be dystopian stories, almost like a category similar to say science fiction. That’s just my opinion, though.]

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

After a recent trip to New York to meet with several editors, we all seemed to end up chatting about the fact that it is SO difficult to find a genuine Middle Grade voice. It’s hard to do well, and most writers make the voice too old (the characters are wise beyond their years) or too young sounding. I would LOVE to find the next great middle grade voice… a Joey Pigza, for example! (I absolutely love Jack Gantos’ work!!)

Another thing I am personally looking for at the moment are some YA romance novels, too. I do not have many romance manuscripts acquired right now.

That being said, I’m still always on the look out for realistic fiction/slice-of-life. That is my favorite kind of story!

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 always read past the query. Some people are not good at writing query letters, and I understand that. Writing a query well takes a lot of time, and patience! Most people don’t devote enough time to their query letters. In fact, I, like many agents, give a lot of seminars on query writing, and how to do it well.

I will admit, that sometimes, I don’t need to read all three chapters to see if I like a particular manuscript. The spelling, grammar, storyline, may all be out of whack where it’s just kind of “not ready” for submission. (Believe it or not, some people just whip off a quick first draft and send it out to see if they can get feedback, or so it seems.) I’ve gotten plenty of manuscripts that just aren’t right for me, and I know it by the end of the first chapter for sure. But for the most part, I read all three sample chapters out of respect for the time the author took to send it to me. By then, I know if I want to read more or not. Sometimes, I know the story is a bit raw and might need some revising, but if I like the writer’s voice or a character in the story, I may ask for revisions, and not simply reject it because it is not perfectly ready to go to editors yet.

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

Two of my favorite middle grade novels were PINBALLS by Betsy Byers, and A SUMMER TO DIE by Lois Lowry. In fact, I wrote Lois Lowry a fan letter about her book A Summer to Die (just a few years ago, after I was already a published author) and she emailed me back!! I was thrilled. The funny part is, I’d never read her really famous, award winning books like Number the Stars or The Giver. She was so kind to have taken the time to write back, especially about one of her early works!

Thanks for including me in your Coffee Cups!

Schwartz Fountain CLOSEUP BxWTo submit Chapter Books, Middle Grade, or Young Adult fiction, please send a query letter and the first three chapters of your manuscript. For non-fiction for ages 5-18, please send a query letter, table of contents, sample chapter and credentials. [* NOTE: The Purcell Agency is no longer seeking Fantasy, Science Fiction, or Picture Books.]

You can send your submissions to:

Tina P. Schwartz, The Purcell Agency, LLC, Email: TPAqueries@gmail.com. (No attachments please. Simply paste samples below signature line of email.)

Thanks, Tina!

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!!

SATURDAY SIT-DOWN with Literary Agent Amy Tipton

To kick off my newest series, I am thrilled to welcome Amy Tipton of Signature Literary Agency, who is here to tell us where querying writers go wrong, what she’d love to see in her inbox, and to remind us how amazing the Sweet Valley High books were.

Welcome, Amy!

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

Addressing me by the wrong name is kinda common–and a complete mistake! (It’s a pet peeve of mine and will cause me to reject you right off the bat.)

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

Misspellings! OMG, people! Use spell check!–and I’m not talking about one typo or a typo here and, even, there–we all make mistakes …

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

Well, I like reality-based YA so I tend to get queries like the regular girl becomes a superstar/some sort of celebrity–a lot of rock star queries (girls becoming rockers or dating them … Oh! Dating the guyliner-wearing, sensitive, poet-alt rocker is so blech!–to me … There’s more to a girl than who she dates, you know?–off topic!–another discussion!) or even girls becoming actresses/reality stars … I also get a lot of books set in the 1980s (thanks Rainbow Rowell) or even books that have the alt sound from the 1980s (again, thanks Rainbow!–everyone thinks their book is the next Eleanor & Park and I do not want the next Eleanor & Park–no matter how good.) I also side-eye queries set in the 60s.

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

I would absolutely LOVE some sort of YA about homegrown terrorism/anarchy/some sort of Black Bloc group—kinda like the movie “The East.” A bit “Hippies Gone Wrong” or “Gutter punks/squatters Gone Wrong”–good intentions but, maybe (to some–who am I to judge?) bad execution. Or some YA about a dark/secret society. (I could get into an idea about a bitchy/dark sorority … Hazing gone wrong, maybe?—not some “Afterschool Special” about the dangers of drinking too much either, please!)

I also rewatched that movie “Heavenly Creatures” and randomly have seen that “I Killed My BFF” show on Lifetime and would LOVE to find a story that explores a close/weirdly close friendship/relationship between 2 kids …

And, for what it’s worth, I am an “American Horror Story” fan–BIG TIME.

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?

If I am uninterested in the query, you can bet I won’t request the book; that doesn’t mean if the query is rife with grammatical errors or whatnot–because if the idea appeals to me, I WILL read–but if you’re claiming to be John Green writing the next ___, I probably won’t read. If I do request and I am not hooked by line 1, I’ll kinda read–scan more–to see if it picks up. I will ride it out with you for about 50 pages but if I am having a hard time–forget it!

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

There are so many books to choose from! I loved “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” and any Ramona Quimby book and I loved the Sweet Valley High books (though #32–“The New Jessica” is favored above all in SVH series) and I loved anything Nancy Drew or by S.E. Hinton.

Amy Tipton, Literary AgentAmy Tipton joined the Signature Literary Agency in 2009. She graduated from Naropa University with a B.A. in Writing and Literature and received her MFA from New College of California in Writing. She comes to the agency after working as a literary assistant and office manager at several literary agencies including JCA Literary Agency, Diana Finch Literary Agency, Gina Maccoby Literary Agency, and Liza Dawson Associates. Amy has also worked as a book scout for Aram Fox, Inc. dealing with foreign rights. She became an agent with Peter Rubie and continued to agent with FinePrint Literary Management. In addition to her agenting experience, Amy also worked as a freelance editor to Lauren Weisberger, author of The Devil Wears Prada. Her work is published in the anthology, Controlled Burn, and pieces of her first and second novel can be found in a variety of literary journals.

If you’d like to query Amy, you can check out her wishlist and submission guidelines here.

Thanks, Amy!!