MWA-NY: Literary Agents Tell Their Truths


I attended the Mystery Writers of America monthly dinner last night.  It was a special evening because three guest speakers were invited — literary agents Dan Conaway of Writers House, Stephany Evans of FinePrint Literary Management and Nancy Yost of Nancy Yost Literary. [There’s an FB page for it, too.]

Many things were said about the ever changing publishing field.  However, the key thing that I took away was what Nancy shared, “It’s less about what’s changing and more of what stays the same.”  What stays the same?  These three literary agents are looking for the following:

Nancy: “Well-written, well-drawn and well told stories.”

Stephany: “We’re readers.  We’re looking for things that we’ll fall in love with.”

Dan: “We’re looking for stuff that we like as readers.  All we know is we respond to things in a specific way.  What it really is, is very subjective.  I’m looking for ‘good shit’ whatever that means.”

The bottom line for all three was writers should not follow a trend.  Why?  Because by the time you write the novel, polish it to the state where it is ready for public consumption it’s 12 – 18 months later.  That trend could already be dying out.  And, by the time the actual book is ready to be published who knows where the trend will be at that time?

So what to do?  All three agreed that writers should write the book(s) that THEY want to read.

The typical basic things that you must do as a writer is:

  1. Spell the agent’s name correctly
  2. Use the agent’s name in the query letter (Do not address the query to: Dear Sir/Madame); Dan specifically said, “I know you’re not writing to me so I don’t feel obligated to read the query.”
  3. Interest the agent with good writing in the query letter as well. The agents agreed that it’s the writing that is the most important part of the query. The writing in the query should be just as good as the writing of the actual “pages” (your actual manuscript pages).

Some pet peeves:

Dan: “Any references to marketing is a turnoff for me.”  Dan elaborated that he is the expert and for you to tell him about the demographics of who this book will reach does nothing for him.  He wants to know if you’re thoughtful?  Can you write a good sentence?  These are things that are of interest to him.

Stephany: The writing is always the thing for her.  “I must have confidence in the writer.  Do I believe they’re capable of doing what they say they’re going to deliver?  It’s always about the writing.”

Nancy: “We read the query with the same eye as we read the manuscript.  So, make sure your query is well-written.”  Don’t compare your work to a huge book.  Nancy’s ‘bullshit radar’ goes up.  It always comes down to the writing.  “It’s always about the pages.”

A special shout out to Jeff Markowitz, Paula Lanier, Pat King and B.J. Whalen for making me feel so welcome!

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Rochelle Written by:

Writer. Dreamer. Lover of Life. Photographer.
I bring all of these elements to my work and share it with you.
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  1. November 4, 2016

    These sound like good points to keep in mind. Interesting though–at the craft conference I attended, those agents said they don’t bother much with the query letter but go straight to the writing. Still, it’s never bad to write a coherent letter. I can’t believe people these days still misspell agents’ names. Such a simple mistake to avoid.

    • November 4, 2016

      I know! But, when you have an inexperienced writer overwhelmed with the sheer number of queries to be sent out these things happen. Especially if you’re doing this in off hours, or once you get home from work. There’s no excuse for this but people must stop and think about what they’re doing prior to doing it. I bet if writers waited a day, or two before sending their query — they wouldn’t make these types of mistakes. (Or, better yet, get a second read on it!)

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