Happy Friday, Misfiteers!
We have a very special interview today--the fabulous Amy Boggs, agent with Donald Maass Literary Agency, is here hanging out with us!
I had the pleasure of meeting Amy in person recently, so I know she is just as lovely and fun as you'd think she is. Let's see what she has to say.
March 1, 2013
Maggie Hall Friday, March 01, 2013 9 comments
Tell us a little bit about yourself. Did you always know you wanted to be an agent? How did you find your way to this (awesome) job?
When I was 14, I discovered the Harry Potter series. At that point, Azkaban had just come out, and I realized there were more planned but not yet written. Despite being a voracious reader, this was the first time I consciously realized that books didn’t just live on library shelves; they were written and then made. That was when I decided to toss aside my inclinations towards a journalism career and do anything I could to be part of that book-making. (This is merely one of the ways Harry Potter started a domino effect that changed my life. :) )
In college, I only had a vague idea of what an agent did when I saw a notice about an agency internship in a school pamphlet. I got it and had the world open up to me. From then on, agenting was my goal.
I was working at a psychiatry magazine when I saw an internship ad for the Donald Maass Literary Agency on craigslist. I knew DMLA well, having been following Jennifer Jackson’s blog (and honestly, every agent blog I could find). I was lucky enough to have them hire me, lucky that it was a paid internship, and luckier still when an assistant position opened up six months later.
What client work do you have coming out soon, and what drew you to it?
I have two clients with work coming out soon. I found both authors in the query pile when I was an assistant.
Thea Harrison hit the paranormal romance world by storm in 2010 with Dragon Bound, the first in her continuing Elder Races series. But Thea isn’t one to just ride the easy wave. In April, she is coming out with the first in a new series: Rising Darkness. It’s about an ER doctor who finds out she’s one of seven beings that came to our world 6,000 years ago to stop the one creature which could destroy it. It’s a harder to categorize novel, pulling from both PNR and urban fantasy without sitting neatly in either. I call it a contemporary fantasy with romantic and horror elements. I wouldn’t be surprised it some called it straight up science fiction, because it can be read that way as well.
But it still has everything I love about Thea’s writing: her wry wit, her engaging characters, and her epic, myth-based world-building. With her first series, Thea showed how she could breathe fresh air into a well-trod genre. With this, she’s branching out into new territory on a much larger scale. It’s such a pleasure to read.
Tom Pollock’s YA urban fantasy debut The City’s Son came out in 2012, and the sequel, The Glass Republic, comes out this summer. TCS followed graffiti artist Beth into a strange, unnoticed London where trash and lamps are sentient spirits fighting to survive the god of demolition. No one comes out of the story whole, but one who was particularly harmed was Beth’s best friend, Pen. She is the main character of TGR, struggling with her scars (both literal and metaphorical) when she accidentally creates someone who truly understands her, a version of herself that lives behind London’s reflective surfaces. But when her mirror sister goes missing, she travels behind the glass to find her and discovers London Under Glass is a dark place indeed.
I fell in love with Tom’s writing because it is as heart-wrenching as it is beautiful. He also put great creativity in his reimagining of London and had the ability to make me cry even on the fifth read. There are people who compare his writing to Neil Gaiman and China Mieville (with good reason) but he has a magic all his own.
Picture this: You're going through the slush pile when you find a submission that makes you not only request a full, but wait on the edge of your seat for it to arrive. What did that query/pages look like?
That is exactly how it happened with my client Holly Messinger. Normally I ask for the first 50 pages after reading a query I like, but I simply had to ask for her full, and I was checking my email constantly. It was agony. She didn’t reply for 6 days!!! Turns out my email had hit her spam. :)
But yes, the query/pages. To be honest, the query pretty much had me at “supernatural” and “Western.” But that’s because Holly knew exactly the kind of work I was looking for. Her pitch set up the world, set up the main character, and set up the inciting conflict. The story sounded unique, without being completely out there for the genre. (A Civil War veteran who runs wagon trains from St. Louis with his best friend, and who came away from the battlefield seeing ghosts, starts battling the supernatural at the behest of an English bluestocking. Coming out in 2014 (Thomas Dunne). ;) ) It was also clear in the query that she had done her research about the time period, warts and all.
There is advice out on the transom that in your query you should say why you’re the one to write this work. That advice is for non-fiction. In fiction, the fact that you’re the right one to write the work should be evident from your writing. Believe me, it quickly becomes clear in a work who knows what they’re writing about and who just relied on Wikipedia. As someone who represents almost exclusively sci-fi/fantasy, I welcome the strange and bizarre with open arms. But the parts of your work that are based in reality? You have to know that inside and out. I’m happy to believe that a 200-lb man can transform into a 2-ton dragon, but it will be a cold day in hell before you get me to believe that chloroform works like they show in movies.
Now you have that MS in hand, and you're loving it. Why? What elements are most important to a MS's success?
Well that’s a tricky wicket. Really, when I’m loving a manuscript, it’s because all of the elements are working together. Characters that are real and intriguing and worth caring about doing things and facing obstacles that are real and intriguing and worth caring about, written with line-by-line tension and in engaging language that doesn’t rely on hand-waving logic. The least important element is grammar/spelling/punctuation. (Hear that, folks? No need to resend a query just because you realized a word was misspelled.) That’s an easy fix. The rest are more difficult, and it will depend on the agent as to whether they think it’s worth their time to help the author revise it.
There is often talk about character-driven vs. plot-driven novels, and it is true that different elements will drive different stories, but just because they’re driving doesn’t mean they’re the only one in the car. Whether it is plot suddenly jumping the rails or a character doing something they would never do, your primary element can easily get weakened by secondary ones.
Now if I had a magic formula for how to make your manuscript a success, then I’d be a rich woman indeed. What it actually takes is a lot of study (reading), a lot of trial (writing), and a lot of error. And even then you might not succeed, although that depends on the definition of success. If it’s creating a great story, then yes, I think that success will eventually come. If it’s to be published, that takes extra luck and criteria that go beyond the story. Think of it as the difference between being a really good basketball player and being in the NBA. Except, sadly, without the wild salaries.
How I know a story is one I want to sell comes down to my enthusiasm. I have come to recognize that if I babble on about the story to everyone I can (coworkers, friends, my parents) and start imagining what that book’s fandom would be like, I better hop on the phone, because I’m ready to go to the mattresses for that book.
Now the opposite: You've just seen a query that's going to get nothing more than a form rejection. Why? What is the worst thing a writer can do in a query? In a first page/chapter?
Well, the worst thing a writer can do is not follow submission guidelines. Doesn’t matter how good your thriller is, I don’t know how to sell it, so I’m not going to sign it. But hopefully anyone reading this knows to do their homework.
The second worst thing they can do is not actually say what their story is about. At the basic level, I need to know your protagonist’s name, what their life starts as, what inciting incident throws that off kilter, how they respond, what they hope to achieve with that, and who/what is in their way. Yes, it’s a lot for 3 or 4 paragraphs, but if that isn’t in there, it’s hard to glean anything about the story.
Aside from that, the query just comes down to taste. You represent your book for what it is and hope that aligns with what the agent wants.
As for opening pages, the worst thing a writer can do is be boring. This is not to say the pages have to be action-action-action. Far from it. Action-action-action can be so very boring if the reader doesn’t have a reason to care. That reason to care, generally, is your protagonist. Do they have to be a good person? No. But they have to be compelling enough for the reader to want to stick with through hundreds of pages.
When I think about unlikable protagonists, I think about House. His outrageousness was part of the reason he was so popular as a character, but what made him compelling? Well, I watched all 177 episodes of that show, but I vividly remember a scene near the end of the pilot, where he gives a speech about how nobody dies with dignity, giving us a glimpse past his snarky exterior. We see that what drives him internally is a rage against passivity, a refusal lie back and accept something just because it’s what was given. That was some good writing, and that was the reason I was willing to follow House through 176 more episodes. So when you start your page one, you need to think about the reasons the reader will want to follow your protagonist for 200+ more pages.
Is there anything you're tired of seeing right now?
If I could go the rest of my life without a query jokingly starting with, “I have a book for you, but don’t worry, there aren’t any vampires in it,” I would be a happy woman.
The thing is, it is not the presence of vampires (or werewolves or angels or demons or time travel or portals or Chosen Ones) that I’m tired of. It is how they are utilized. I don’t want another story about how an average teen falls for a brooding teen who turns out to be a [insert creature here]. Or about how a kid falls through a portal and finds out they are the Chosen One foretold by prophecy but all the kid wants is to get home. Or about people accidentally traveling through time and falling in love and being torn between that love and trying to get home. Yes, these tropes are fun to play with, but play with them. Don’t imitate them.
To give our readers an idea of your taste, are there any published books you wish you'd repped? Why?
Oh, so many. Megan Whalen Turner immediately springs to mind; she writes really charming and unique characters, and engages with the politics of the world she’s created in a grippingly realistic way. Louis Sachar has such a grasp on all the stages of childhood and never feels like he’s talking down to anyone. Malinda Lo is absolutely brilliant (read her blog!) and writes very rich worlds. And yeah, I’m jealous that my fellow DMLAer Jennifer Jackson represents Jim Butcher.
I’ll stop there before I get too carried away.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give an aspiring author?
I know I’ve said this before, perhaps even verbatim, but I still think it holds true: Be daring. It’s better to take a risk and fail spectacularly than to play it safe and achieve meh.
(I never ask people the "deserted island book" question because there is no way I could ever choose a single book, and never want to force anyone else to. But I happen to know Amy is a woman who knows her mind on this issue.) And so I ask:
What is the one book you'd bring along if you knew you were going to be stranded on a deserted island?
Night Watch by Terry Pratchett. And I know this because I always pack it with me on any transoceanic trips. :) This started in college when I did a class trip to Berlin, Prague, and Budapest for spring break. I knew there would be very little reading time, but I wanted something just in case, something that could entertain even a jetlag-addled mind. There was no question which book I should bring. Later, when I became an agent and saw the desert-island question pop up on blogs, I knew Night Watch was my answer for the same reason I took it on that trip: a large cast of characters I know and love, an almost equal number of new ones, a in-depth exploration of my favorite Discworld character, scenes that evoke the entire gamut of human emotion, a beloved city to help me remember my own beloved city, and a plethora of story alleys that my mind could explore for an endless amount of untold tales (yes, I am a fanficcer). Night Watch could entertain me for a lifetime.
Bonus fun question: If you were the MC of a YA book, what YA character would be your love interest? How about your best friend?
Aaaaaahhhh, my mind has gone blank over the overwhelming number of possible love interests! Instead of looking at it in terms of crushes, I’ll focus on the realistic choice given my personality and the type of YA book I would likely be the MC of. So, Ron Weasley from the Harry Potter series. (Yes, my realistic choice is a wizard. Shush.) I like my men with a lot of heart.
As for my best friend… Well, normally I don’t like to bring up my own authors’ books in these kind of questions, but there can be no other answer but Parva “Pen” Khan from The Skyscraper Throne series. She is such an awesome friend, and an awesome person, and I would love to be her friend and remind her of her awesome at frequent intervals.
Since all our readers are obviously going to want to query you now (um, only if they have something you're looking for, of course!), can you tell us how to do it, and what it is you're looking for?
I’m looking for any flavor of fantasy and science fiction, in the categories of adult, YA, and MG. Historical fiction, Westerns, and works that challenge their genre are also welcome. I also want to add that I am seeking projects with characters who are diverse in any and all respects, such as (but not limited to) gender, race, ethnicity, disability, and sexuality.
Query me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your query, first five pages, and a short synopsis (no set length, but 1-2 pages is generally best) all pasted in the body of the email. (No attachments, please, unless I ask for more.)
Holy crap, didn't I tell you guys she was great?
Thank you so much, Amy! You are so awesome I got Ron Weasley to read this interview, and he said to give him a call... :) And now you've made me want to read Night Watch AND your clients' books.
Again, thanks so much for being here today and chatting with YA Misfits. We would love to have you over for cocktails any time.