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#55: Behind the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference: An Interview with literary agent Carrie Howland by Maria Gagliano

Few things are more stressful for writers than the perplexing process of pitching agents. It’s hard to know when your work is ready to submit, which moves are damaging and which are helpful, and where agents are even looking for clients these days. We chatted with literary agent Carrie Howland about what she looks for when scouting debut authors. You can hear more from Carrie at our How to Know When Your Manuscript is Really Done panel at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference on September 7. The full panel line-up can be found here.

You have an amazing group of debut authors on your list, many of whom have been published in Slice. Where do you typically find your debut writers?

First, thank you! I love debut novels and feel fortunate to work with such wonderful debut novelists. Slice has been such a great resource for them! My clients have come from many places ranging from referrals to conferences. I meet authors at readings, find their work in journals. I’ve even found clients through Twitter and online pitch contests. I think, for debut writers trying to find an agent, the most important thing, after the work, is visibility. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, whether that’s at a reading or on a blog. The more visible your work, the better your chances of being noticed.

Does it matter to you whether a prospective client has an MFA?

An MFA is great, but it’s by no means a requirement for me. It’s really just a piece of the puzzle. The most important thing to me is the work. If you don’t have an MFA, but are looking for a way to stand out to agents, publications are a great place to start. One of the best things an MFA gives an author is connections. If you don’t have an MFA, make those connections on your own by attending readings and other events. On any given night in New York, there are a number of events for writers. Go out and make some connections! (If you still don’t know where to start, Slice is a great resource for publishing AND events!)

What literary magazines do you tend to read when looking to spot great new voices?

Well, Slice, of course. (And not just because you’re asking!) Slice is by far one of my favorite publications and a great resource for both debut writers and publishing professionals alike. Of course I read Tin House and The Paris Review religiously. An online journal I especially love is Narrative. Apogee is a newer journal, founded in 2011 by writers from the Columbia MFA program, that is publishing a lot of really interesting work.

How much editorial work do you usually do with clients before submitting their work to publishers? And on that note, how likely are you to take on a client if you feel their manuscript still needs substantial revisions?

This all depends on how the work comes to me, of course, but the short answer is: a lot. I think it’s my job, as an agent, to help a writer get his or her manuscript into the best possible shape before sending it out. The publishing market is tough. It has become harder than ever to publish a book, so we need to try to eliminate every possible reason an editor can say no. Honestly, I think just about every book I’ve taken on has needed editorial work. I very often take on books with potential, because I fall in love with the voice and writing, even if the work as a whole isn’t quite ready. I’ll generally have a call or meeting with an author to see if we’re on the same page, editorially, and if we are, it’s a match! This editorial process not only helps the work, but later, when I’m pitching the book to editors, it allows me to give an honest assessment of what the writer is like to work with. Beyond the editorial work, I also work with my clients to build their platforms, from their websites to Twitter pages to introducing them to others in the community at readings. My job as an agent is to help writers in all aspects of their careers.

Are there specific things you look for in a query letter that a surprising number of writers don’t include?

I see a combination of too much and not enough in query letters. To begin, a lot of query letters come to me without bios. This is important! Even if you don’t feel like your bio is flashy enough, include it! If you don’t have the education or publications you’d like, include other things that make you stand out. One of my authors, Scott Cheshire, wrote a book (High as the Horses’ Bridles) about a child preacher. A former child preacher himself, it was great to get that information in Scott’s bio. It was not only interesting, but gave an added credibility to the work. I also like to know that a writer is querying me because he or she wants to work with me specifically, and isn’t just looking at the querying process as throwing spaghetti at the wall. Don’t address the query to “Agent” or send a mass email. Further, do a bit of research. If you’re querying me because you love one of my author’s books, say so. If your book is set in Michigan (where I was raised), tell me! If these personal touches are genuine, they’re always appreciated. On the other hand, just try to keep your letter to a page. I see so many queries that go on far too long. Remember that we’re reading hundreds of these. Make your pitch, give us no more than a paragraph of plot, and tell us your background—that’s all we need! Be succinct. When it comes to queries, you’ll get much further with less.

 

Carrie Howland is a literary agent at Donadio and Olson, Inc., where she represents literary fiction, narrative non-fiction, middle grade, and young adult authors. Carrie holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Albion College, where she was the Poetry Editor of The Albion Review. Her poetry has appeared in various literary journals and magazines. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. You can follow her on twitter at @ecarriehowland or learn more about Donadio & Olson at www.donadio.com.

Maria Gagliano is a writer, editor, baker, and Business Director of Slice. Her writing has appeared in BUST magazine, the Huffington Post, and Salon, among other publications. You can find her on Twitter and at mariagagliano.com.

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