#81: A Sneak Peek at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference: An Interview with Writers House agent Andrea Morrison, by Maria Gagliano
August 5, 2016
As a writer, you’ve likely turned to Google for industry advice at some point. And who can blame you? With a few clicks you can dig up agent contact lists, read forums about the best agents to query, even swipe query letter templates. Some of the resources out there are more reliable than others, and when it comes to querying agents your best source of wisdom is the agents themselves. If only you could personally ask them the burning questions that keep you Googling long after Stephen Colbert is done for the night.
We chatted with Writers House agent Andrea Morrison about her best advice for writers who are getting ready to query. She’ll join a team of fellow agents on our “Ask the Agents” panel at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference on Sunday, September 11. Their talk will unveil so much more than a Google search ever can.
You must be flooded with submissions. How do you even begin to read them all? Do you have a process for sifting through submissions to help you spot the gems?
I try to skim each query letter the day or day after it comes in, if possible. (Sometimes that can be wishful thinking amongst everything else…but I do my best!) I’ll mark those that look like they’re especially up my alley, and I’ll know to prioritize, and pay extra attention when I go back to those letters and sample pages. Once I take a closer look, I’ll request a partial or full manuscript if I feel like the project might be a fit and I’d like to see more. In the end, I do read all query letters, and even if a project isn’t right for me, at times I’ll refer the writer to a colleague who might be a better match.
Are there any red flags you tend to encounter that tell you a project or writer might not be ready for submission?
The biggest, of course, is submitting an unfinished manuscript or proposal. Aside from that, I don’t know if I’d say red flags, exactly. But I do think it’s important to have readers you can trust, and to have those best readers agree that noticeable plot and pacing problems have been addressed, for example. What you submit to agents, and then what’s submitted to editors, should be the strongest material you have. This is different if an agent or editor approaches you and asks to see your work-in-progress, but otherwise your book should be at the point where you don’t know what to do next, and your readers don’t know what else you can do. And this isn’t to say that the agent won’t then have editorial thoughts—that’s very likely, and a good thing to get fresh comments! But you shouldn’t send something in if you know that significant work needs to be done, and you’re rushing to get the writing out in the world, even though you know it deserves more time.
What are some ways in which writers can help themselves that they may not be thinking about?
In the writing workshops I was in, I remember more than one professor saying the best resource you can leave a writing program with is a group of ideal readers. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to have three or four ideal readers. If you have one ideal reader, you’re still lucky. Whether you come from a background that includes organized workshops or not, find that ideal reader, whoever he or she may be. That ideal reader isn’t the person who says the manuscript is great every step of the way—it’s the person who always appreciates what you’re trying to do, but knows when you’re doing it and calls you out when you’re not. She knows how you might go about solving the problems you have. He has edits that can help you take your manuscript to the next level.
On a completely different note, once you get to the query stage, the best advice I can give is this: do research. It’s exciting that a draft is ready to go out to agents, but it’s so, so important to make sure you’re reading guidelines on agency websites and/or Publishers Marketplace profiles to be sure you’re not submitting to more than one agent at an agency, for example, or anything else that’s specified as being a “please don’t.” Make sure you’re submitting to an agent who handles your project’s genre. Be sure to look up how to write a query letter. Practice. Have your readers read that, too.
Pitch your book in a way that would make you and your friends want to buy it at a store. Follow the sample page guidelines, or any other agent guidelines that might differ per agency. Personalized and directed query letters really help—but more importantly, why do you want to work with that agent and agency, specifically? It’s so important to have the right advocate and career partner. It’s in your best interest to reach out to agents who seem like they’ll be a good fit for your current project, but also your body of work in general. You want to end up with someone who will support you every step of the way, and champion your work wholeheartedly as your career progresses.
Let’s say you fall in love with a submission. What happens next? Can you draw the curtain on your process of signing on clients?
It’s a little bit case-by-case, honestly! But if I fall in love with a submission, I generally ask to set up a call with the author. Assuming we’re on the same page, I’d sign the writer as a client and we’d move on to editorial work. If I get a submission that’s full of merit, and the writing is wonderful, but I’m not completely sure if we’re a match or that our visions align, or there’s a lot of editorial work to be done, then I’ll request revisions first.
Andrea Morrison started at Writers House as an intern in 2009. Under Geri Thoma (Joan Silber, Harold Holzer, Ann Packer, Wendy Lower, Christina Baker Kline) and Rebecca Sherman (Daniel Salmieri, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, Andrea Davis Pinkney, Melissa Sweet), she’s had the opportunity to work with a wide variety of bestselling and award-winning authors and illustrators in genres ranging from picture books to middle grade and YA to adult literary fiction and nonfiction. Read Andrea’s full bio here.
Maria Gagliano is a writer, editor, and Business Director of Slice. Her writing has appeared in BUST magazine, the Huffington Post, and Salon, among other publications. You can learn more about her work at mariagagliano.com.