Of all of the things I learned from doing Pitch Wars as a mentor, the number one is probably this: I do not want to be a literary agent. Having to say no to eager young writers, handing over the works of their heart? Brutal. Writing personalized feedback? Incredibly time-consuming. Resisting the urge to request material for basically everything? Borderline impossible. But, getting to read all the incredible awesomeness out there and falling in love with a submission?
Obviously there are many more aspects to being an agent than just dealing with the slush pile; I didn’t have any other “clients” requiring my attention, I didn’t have to deal with contracts or rights or following up with editors, and that the number of applications in my inbox was a mere fraction of the ones actual literary agents get. That said, I did feel like the whole experience gave me a little insight into what literary agents deal with every day, and so I wanted to pass along my thoughts on what I learned from the experience, including why I made my personal choices.
First and foremost, I want to give some massive love to Team Smitten Kittens:
I can’t even tell you how amazing all three of these ladies have been, and how hard they’ve worked to perfect their already-great manuscripts. I’m so excited for the world to see them, and to watch them all get snapped up by agents ASAP! What I can tell you, however, is why I chose them, what else played in thanks to social media, and what really worked for me with the ones that came close.
THE RIGHT EXPOSURE by Ghenet Myrthil: I couldn’t request pages fast enough after getting Ghenet’s application. The writing was smooth and funny; it promised a romance, a girl who was passionate about a hobby, and at least a glimpse of Hawaii; and although the idea seems simple – a girl needs to overcome her fear of heights in order to achieve her dreams – I couldn’t think of any book that’d tackled that same issue, and as it’s such a common phobia, I thought, “There damn well should be!”
So that’s how I ended up requesting pages, and after reading the first fifty pages, I was no less hooked. I loved journeying with the character of Kayla, I loved each individual character and his or her quirks, I was completely sucked in to Ghenet’s sensory descriptions of each of Kayla’s encounters, and most of all, I loved that Kayla’s character arc was one of self-empowerment. Yes, there’s an aspect of wanting to please her parents, and an aspect of wanting to please her crush, but ultimately, the person she’s fighting for the most is herself. When I got to read the rest of her manuscript after selecting her as my mentee, I was thrilled to see that every single aspect I loved about the partial held up throughout.
Social media bonus: I follow a lot of contests and a lot of writer conversations on Twitter, and it always makes me cringe when people make clear how long their manuscripts have been out there. Guys, there is no advantage to you in doing this. I know you want to be open and honest and vent and all of that is cool, but that’s what DMs and emails are for. Because in public, it’s just telling me how many people have passed on your manuscript before it’s gotten to me, and why would that make me want it?
Similarly, while I think contests are wonderful and it’s fantastic to take advantage of them, bear in mind that it’s often the same agents doing them over and over, and the same people following them, and when your manuscript gets too familiar, that can have a similar effect. So when I happened to see that Ghenet hadn’t even really queried this one yet, and certainly hadn’t had it in any contests, that was a draw for me. And before you think that’s unfair, remember this: plenty of agents are on Twitter too, and they’re seeing the same things I am, and likely making the same judgments.
THE HIT LIST by Nikki Urang: I love dark contemporary, but it’s hard to find things that don’t feel like they’ve been done to death. And even though there are absolutely great “dead sibling” and “dead parent” and “sexual assault” and whatever else books still coming out and going on submission all the time, it helps to know right off what’s going to set it apart. For me, it was the combination of the dance school setting (which Nikki also proved she was going to do well by including her expertise in her query and showing said expertise in her first pages) and the thoroughly modern way technology played a role in the plot.
Social media Bonus: As it happens, thanks to Twitter, I’ve actually already beta’d a completely different manuscript by Nikki, so I already knew her writing was clean, well paced, and compelling. Now, don’t get me wrong – none of that would have mattered if I wasn’t extremely interested in her premise and didn’t see that her writing was every bit as clean, well paced, and compelling in this ms, but the next time you’re hesitating over whether to mention to an agent that he or she has previously requested a full? Do it.
ONE TWO THREE by Elodie Nowodazkij: Something must’ve been in the air the day I made my final selections, because I ended up with not one but two dance-themed manuscripts, which still makes me laugh because I know nothing about dance. However, I’m a big sucker for characters who are really passionate about their hobbies, and since my Contemporary YA experience with books about dancers pretty much starts and ends with WHEN THE STARS GO BLUE by Caridad Ferrer (which is sort of a fascinating read, actually), it feels a lot fresher to me than, say, a book about an aspiring artist might.
For me, what was actually the biggest hook was a totally personal thing – Elodie’s MC, Natalya, comes from a Russian family, and having minored in Russian Studies in college, I happen to love when Russian culture plays into a story. Every agent and editor is going to have his or her sweet spots, and that’s one of mine!
Social media bonus: Elodie had actually tweeted about her ms at some point before Pitch Wars, and holy cow did her tweet about its premise stick in my brain. When you’re actually staring at your inbox hoping a certain something will pop into it, it’s a very good sign! One of my favorite Twitter moments of the past few months was watching my fellow YA Misfit Jamie be told by an agent to query her – and attach a full – RTFN, even though said (very busy and successful!) agent wasn’t even open to queries. Considering she couldn’t even have known about Jamie’s ms other than through social media, it’s safe to say that sometimes the little bits and pieces you reveal can be very intriguing!
On top of the three entries that ended up comprising Team Smitten Kitten, there were two entries that deserve very honorable mentions, because they just as easily could’ve been in my top, had circumstances been different. One of them arrived on the very first day, and burned itself into my brain immediately with its humor, seriously exciting first pages, and title. I was super psyched to work on it, had some suggestions I was really excited to impart, and was sure agents would love it as much as I did.
Unfortunately, I was far too accurate on that last point – she received an offer just as Pitch Wars was nearing its end, and I just got extremely lucky that Ghenet’s manuscript arrived at around the same time!
The other one was a similarly happy story – a fantastic premise and setting, and she used one of my favorite (and not-terribly-well-known) contemporary YAs, AUDREY, WAIT! by Robin Benway, as a comp title. As it happens, I wasn’t the only one who was crazy excited by this manuscript, and I ceded her to another mentor instead, since I did have other loves lined up. Though if I were actually an agent, not a chance I would’ve done this 😉
So those were my Top Five, as it were, and I’m so excited to see all of them get the attention they deserve!
While the others didn’t compel me quite as much, there were definitely a few things that notably grabbed me, and also a few which notably contributed to my passing on a submission:
- Settings. There’s one manuscript that still sticks with me to this day because the setting was just so clever. One major challenge of writing Contemporary is really making your manuscript stand out, and indeed there were many I passed on simply because they felt far too similar to things that were already out there. If you’ve got a really unique setting, that’ll help you every time. Would ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS have been as successful if it didn’t have the bonus of being set in Paris?
- Titles. Yes, titles change, but it never hurts to get them right on the first try; great ones can attach you to a manuscript instantly. What does hurt is using a title that’s already been used by another book, especially a recent one, and especially one that was pretty big news – if you don’t know the market well enough to know that, how can I (putting my fake agent/editor hat on) trust that you know the market well enough to write the right books for it, and ones with plots that haven’t already been done to death before?
- Comp titles. While these aren’t a must, they do have the power to do some great things for you. For one, if the agent reading is a big fan of a book you’ve named, it’s going to be a major push to read it. (See above.) For another, if you use a book that’s not crazy well known, it also shows knowledge of the market. (See above, and further above.) On the flip side, using a bestselling author/book doesn’t tell me much. Maybe half the submissions I got said they would appeal to fans of Sarah Dessen. Guys, if you’re writing YA Contemporary, you’d better appeal to fans of Sarah Dessen. That’s a bare minimum. She’s a bestselling author, she’s written ten books, and her books have sold film rights that were actually made into (absolutely terrible) movies. You are an aspiring debut. You’re not Sarah Dessen.
So, there you have it – some of the inner workings of my twisted, judge-y brain. Make sure you follow along to see how it all pans out, beginning January 23rd on YA Misfits!