Interview today! And it’s interactive! (Seems like it’s been a while since we’ve had a good, old-fashioned installment of “Interview with an Agent.”) Today’s interviewee is Meredith Barnes of Lowenstein Associates. She maintains an awesome blog, the beautifully titled La Vie en Prose, so after you read the interview (and leave your questions in the comments), definitely go and check that out.
KV: How often does a query intrigue you enough to look at the included pages? And how often do those pages intrigue you enough to request the manuscript?
MB: I almost always look at the pages included with a query. Query writing is hard, so I like to take a look at the writing itself. Typically, I’ll read the first few lines of the query, get a sense of the category, length, and plot. Then I skip to the pages and read a few lines. If the pages are good, I just read them all and make a decision to request more from there. If they’re iffy, I’ll skip back up and read the rest of the query to see if there are any saving graces (like a unique plot twist or an author with a really stellar online presence). But in almost all cases, if the pages don’t wow, from word one, it will be a rejection, unfortunately.
KV: What are you looking for in a requested manuscript?
MB: First, voice. Voice is a very high indicator of a talented writer. So that means that the main character especially (but the other ones, too, of course) feels real. Under that rubric falls good dialog, showing instead of telling, etc. If a writer is able to bring their characters to life with distinctive and realistic voices, the most common faults (stilted dialog, telling) won’t happen. And they’re more likely to be able to revise.
Second is a good plot. Something that moves along at a quick pace. Contrary to popular belief, this is not only applicable to commercial fiction like thrillers. Even “literary fiction” has to have, as one of my creative writing professors put it, “People doing stuff.” (Actually, that’s edited. He used a curse word.) Even if the changes, the “moving along at a quick pace,” are happening emotionally on the inside of the character, there still have to be things happening. This requirement is a reaction against overwriting, that terrible sludgy writing filled with adjectives and inverted, extra clauses.
KV: What are some of the most common problems you see in the manuscripts you request?
MB: The inverses of what I’m looking for in a request: characters that don’t jump off the page because the dialog is stiff or the voice is inauthentic (so common in YA submissions), telling me someone feels uncomfortable instead of showing me how they fidget and cut their eyes, and overwritten “flowery” manuscripts where no one does anything.
KV: When you come across a manuscript you really like/love, how do you decide whether to request revisions or offer representation?
MB: Very, very rarely is anything ready right out of a full request. There are almost always revisions to be made, typically I want to see that before I’ll make a formal offer.
Usually, I’ll send a formal editorial letter to someone that I’m seriously considering, see how they take it (Argue? Not really know how to take the direction?) and then wait to read the revision. Revising is very different from writing--some writers can get it down on paper fairly well but can’t go back in and do the analysis to revise. I like to know I’m working with someone who can do both before signing them (Not that I won’t sign them if they struggle with revision, but one likes to know what one is getting into:) ).
Sometimes, though, something is JUST TOO GOOD to wait on, and I’ll send an offer with my editorial letter. That way the author can see what I’d change when initially deciding whether or not to go on with me. I’ll move faster if I know an editor that’s dying to see that project or I personally have really wanted that sort of thing. I do a lot of nonfiction, so if a sample chapter is really good and the proposal is polished, I’ll sign that right off, usually. And, of course, sometimes you have to make a snap decision if the author is considering another offer. First I have to consider if I really want it, and once I do it’s all cylinders go, letter, phone call, offer all pretty quickly.
KV: When you do make that Call, you’re probably going to ask the writer if she has any questions. What sorts of questions should she ask?
MB: Ooh! This is a good one. Authors should always ask, first and foremost, about revisions that an agent wants made. If you haven’t seen a letter before your phone call (I think it’s easier to send one then schedule the call, so those revision can be discussed more in-depth), ask what revisions they’d request. How do those sit with you? If you have seen an editorial letter and have reservations, talk that through. Just as much as some authors don’t want their work critiqued, some agents get huffy if you question their notes, and you should know that ahead of time. There are times when you have to go with your agent’s gut, but revisions have to be collaborative.
You should also ask about communication style. Does the agent do a regular check in with everyone? Do they pretty much only get in touch if there’s news or something specific to discuss? Which do you want? Differences in this category are probably the most frequent reason agents and authors have trouble, so it’s an important one!!
Lastly, ask your agent what their overall Plan is for your book. Books are not just books anymore. They could become apps or enhanced ebooks or have cool interactive elements like game websites. There are cool marketing techniques that your book might lend itself to (I, for instance, have a book in which music features prominently, so playlists will be a big thing for our marketing). Are they thinking outside the box? Can they talk about this stuff? These days, they should be able to.
KV: And now for a few quick questions from the normal interview. What client work do you have coming out soon? What drew you to those writers and/or projects?
MB: I have some really exciting projects coming up, but none that are web-ready yet!! You know, don’t want to spoil the pre-empt I’m aiming for:)
I can tell you that the next two things I have coming up, one fiction and one non, both had very unique concepts, great voices, digitally savvy authors who are open to my quirky ideas on digital elements and marketing, and both projects lend themselves to all the book+ that’s going on: apps, multimedia enhancements, and unique marketing.
KV: Is there something you haven’t been seeing lately in the slush pile that you wish you were? What are you tired of seeing at the moment?
MB: I’m a little YA’d out, honestly, although I am still biting for the sci-fi and thrillers…but just no more paranormal, please. A really unique YA contemporary might catch my eye, too. Something with rock and roll in it.
I’d love to see some great literary fiction, something like a Jennifer Egan/A Visit from the Goon Squad.
I also just finished Galveston by the inestimable Nic Pizzolatto…please someone be another him and query me. It’s highly literary but extraordinarily paced (see #2 in this interview). Same for Will Lavender’s work (Obedience, Dominance). These are both of the crime persuasion, but I’d love to see a sci-fi thriller that was written as well as these are.
For nonfiction: always blog-to-book. Of course, platform is a huge consideration in nonfiction. Be honest with yourself about your platform: think in the thousands, not hundreds when you're talking about blog followers, etc. If you're not there, WAIT. It's better to take some time to build your platform before you query.
I’m also looking for amazing stories and a sassy relationship or fashion expert who would reach this demographic:
KV: What’s the best way to query you?
MB: You can find Lowenstein Associates’ submission guidelines here: lowensteinassociates.com/submission.html, or on my blog: merbarnes.blogspot.com!! The worst way to query me is to do anything other than that--don’t get cute.
And there you have it. Thanks again, Ms. Barnes, for all of this FANTASTIC information. We almost don’t need to do the interactive part…
But we will! Because I’m sure you savvy readers have a lot of savvy questions. Feel free to leave them in the comments section below. Ms. Barnes will pop in throughout the day and leave her answers in the comments, too. We’ll wrap things up at 3:00 p.m. EDT (which is 12:00 noon PDT), just so Ms. Barnes can enjoy her Friday night. Until then, ask away!