Interview with Literary Agent and Young Adult Author Marie Lamba:
In preperation for the annual Push to Publish event held at Rosemont College on October 13th (http://www.philadelphiastories.org/push-publish-2012-strategies-and-techniques-get-your-work-print-and-online), I thought it was best to do some interviews so you could get to know the wonderful and talented experts coming to Rosemont.
Wittle: For someone just starting out in the literary life, could you explain the function of a literary agent? Almost the down and dirty definition.
Lamba: A literary agent is a partner in your professional writing career. This is someone who will be your cheerleader, who will target your work to the right publishers, and who will help shape your future in a way that will be best for your own goals. Because your agent is your professional partner, he or she should be encouraging about your writing, but also honest about manuscripts that you would like to send out to publishers. She should believe in you 100% and be relentless in finding the best home for your best work.
Wittle: How did you become interested in being a literary agent?
Lamba: I’d been a full-time YA author for a number of years. During that time, I’d gained many skills we authors must also have these days: editing, promoting, marketing, communicating, networking. But I’d never considered becoming an agent in addition to an author until my own agent Jennifer DeChiara invited me to become an Associate Agent for her firm.
When I thought about it for a while, I realized what a great fit this would be for me. I love to mentor, to edit, to support writers. I adore reading and discovering new talent. Promoting has become second nature. And I get so much out of interacting with smart and witty editors, and with committed and creative writers.
Wittle: What are the hottest trends in the literary world today? Which ones are flooded?
Lamba: When I speak with children’s editors and ask them what they are looking for, most tell me they are hungry for middle grade manuscripts, especially ones with boy appeal. In the YA market, editors usually ask for that magic combination: a literary book with commercial appeal. What’s that? I think it translates to smart beautiful writing with a salable hook. As for paranormal? While it’s still selling, I know there’ve been a lot of these projects crossing editors’ desks. As one editor said to me, “Please, no more special powers!”
In my own inbox, I’ve been flooded with stories of a teen whose parents are missing/away on work/dead, and who suddenly discovers that she/he is a fairy/witch/werewolf/psychic/reaper/mermaid/etc. and even as she must come to grips with this, she discovers she is at the heart of a prophecy/curse/legacy/myth and must step up or everything she loves, including the entire world, will end. Now that’s not to say that this motif isn’t valid (Harry Potter, fairy tales, etc.), but it’s something to be aware of. If I’m getting, say, 10-20 of these a day, you can imagine how it will feel predictable and dull. Writers must see how they can present an original angle to something that currently feels overdone.
Wittle: What gets your attention most in a query letter?
Lamba: A clear idea that feels fresh. I’m always looking for books that present the world to me with a new perspective. If a book feels like a shadow of something that’s already out there, I’m going to pass.
Wittle: What are the top three things that will make you walk away from a writer’s manuscript?
Lamba: A bad attitude. I don’t care how excellent the writing may be or how many credentials an author has. If they are obnoxious, arrogant or in any way showing a difficult side, it’s an instant no. I have to partner with this author, and it must be someone that I can respect. This bad attitude can rear its head in the query letter (“If you know what’s good for you, you will sign me immediately,” “This is the best book you will ever read, and will certainly become an instant bestseller,” “I know you agents only care about money,” “I have been through many agents, but none were good enough,” etc. etc. etc.). Sometimes the voice and opinions of the author actually show through in the narrative of their novel. If I find a racist, misogynistic, or abusive voice coming through as the voice of reason in the author’s mind, I’m outta there.
Poor writing and editing. Some folks just don’t take writing seriously enough, don’t study the market, don’t edit their work, and think that they can dash their ideas onto their computers and press send. Even if the idea is fascinating, if you don’t have the chops to write it well and the professionalism to present it in its best form, it’s an instant no.
The “young” book. People who are new to writing often learn from working on numerous novels, growing with each new book they create. They start out writing novels about themselves (that trip to Europe, that bad breakup, my first year in college, my weird family), and imitating authors they love (sounding like Sarah Dessen, or plotting like Hunger Games, or writing yet another version of a Stephanie Plum mystery only set in Pittsburgh), which almost reads like fan fiction. Writers need to find their original voice and a fresh story, and sometimes that takes time. Young books may show some nice style, but are often too obvious. And sometimes a young book is one that may end up excellent some day…after much more restructuring and editing and growth.
Wittle: What three things make you want to take on a manuscript and a writer?
Lamba: When I finish reading it, I leap to my feet and think, “I LOVE this. This has to be a book. I must represent this person!” Then I race to my phone. Yup. That’s it. My #1, #2, and #3.
Okay, I’ll dig deeper. A book that sets up a unique and interesting premise, and then not only lives up to its promise to the reader, but exceeds it.
A book that haunts me. I find myself thinking about it long after it’s done, and wanting to tell everyone what it felt like to walk around in that world. A book that breaks my heart, or makes me spit my coffee out when I laugh, or does both!
Wittle: What advice would you give someone considering a career as a literary manager?
Lamba: Amass the skills that you need to be successful in this field: editing, writing, critical reading skills, marketing and public relations ability, interpersonal skills. See if you can work with a publisher or an agency to help read their slush piles or intern doing office work. That’s how most agents I’ve met got their foot in the door.
Marie Lamba Bio:
Associate Agent, Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency (www.jdlit.com)
Marie Lamba (www.marielamba.com)is author of the young adult novels What I Meant… (Random House), OverMy Head and Drawn. Her work appears in the short story anthology LiarLiar (Mendacity Press), the anthology Call Me Okaasan: Adventures inMulticultural Mothering (Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing), and her articlesappear in more than 100 publications including national magazines such as Writer’s Digest, Garden Design and RWR. She has worked as an editor, an award-winning public relations writer,and a book publicist, has taught classes on novel writing and on authorpromotion, and belongs to the Romance Writers of America, and The Liars Club.
As an agent, Marie is currently looking for young adult andmiddle grade fiction, along with general and women’s fiction and somememoir. Books that are moving and/orhilarious are especially welcome. She is NOT interested in picture books, sciencefiction or high fantasy (though she is open to paranormal elements), categoryromance (though romantic elements are welcomed), non-fiction, or in books thatfeature graphic violence. For submissions guidelines, please visit: http://jdlit.com/submitpages/mariesubmit.html