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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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!!