An Interview with Literary Agent Sarah LaPolla
May 23, 2018
In this latest Encounters in Publishing interview, Sarah LaPolla from the Bradford Literary Agency offers us an inside look at the challenges that come after a manuscript is written. She provides some of the best lessons she’s learned in her career. Whether you’re developing ideas or querying agents, Sarah has great tips to help you avoid common mistakes. You’ll want to take note if you are an emerging YA or genre writer. You’ll also be able to find her at the SLICE Literary Writers’ Conference this September. I spoke with Sarah about MFAs, the role of current events in speculative genres, and the best ways to find the right agent for your book.
As an agent who seeks science fiction, mystery, and horror, do you like to see contemporary, real-world issues brought into these imaginative genres?
Absolutely! Sci-fi and horror, when done well, often say more about contemporary society than literary/realistic fiction. There’s usually more honesty in the fantastic because there are fewer limitations on how you can interpret modern culture and politics. Those genres are always my favorites for that reason. High fantasy, hard/overly technical sci-fi, or anything that goes too far away from reality usually isn’t my thing (but it never hurts to try anyway!).
What was the first book that you worked on as an agent? What did you learn from that experience?
The first book I signed was in 2010 and it was Adult paranormal romance by a debut author, A.J. Larrieu. It ended up selling to Carina Press as a trilogy called THE SHADOWMINDS SERIES. In my post-MFA head, I was going to be capital-L Literary agent, so the level at which I fell in love with that series surprised me. That was Lesson #1 – leave my pretentious notions at the door. But the writing to that book was on the literary side, which made it hard to place in the market when paranormal was already everywhere. That was Lesson #2 – know the market expectations and how to pitch with them in mind.
Around the same time, I signed another debut author, K.M. Walton, and her novel, CRACKED, ended up being the first novel I sold. It was an issue-driven YA contemporary novel about bullying. It ended up setting a tone for me in terms of my list in 2011-2012. I don’t really gravitate toward issue-centric books anymore (meaning, books where the plot is centered around an issue rather than the issues being thematic). I’m still proud of that book and it sold to a Big 5 publisher (still the Big 6 at the time), so I got to learn a lot about negotiating contracts, managing expectations, and what the YA market was like at the time.
Do you have any advice for YA authors who are seeking an agent for their debut work?
Read as much as you can in the market you’re writing in, and prove it to agents by writing an amazing book that compliments what’s currently being published. The best queries I receive are ones that clearly know the genre they’re writing in, and approach it from a new angle or perspective that keeps the familiar feeling fresh.
When it comes to deciding who to query and when, the best advice I can give is to do your research! Follow us on Twitter, check our Publisher’s Marketplace deals, follow the hashtag #MSWL (stands for “manuscript wishlist”) to see if your book fits into what we’re hoping to see in our inboxes. Don’t have a “Dream Agent.” Have 20 or 30, but don’t query anyone you don’t actually want to work with. Having no agent is ultimately better than having the wrong agent.
For character based fiction, do you have any tips for helping writers maintain complexity without bogging down the story with too many details?
I love character-driven fiction, but it can be tricky to stay true to that mode of storytelling while still keeping the story moving forward. What I often tell my authors is to avoid backstory completely in Ch. 1 so at least the story can be set up without getting bogged down from the start. By chapters 3 or 4 writers have built up enough trust with the reader to pause and give some backstory. Mostly, though, keep the character in action, whatever that action is, and remember that backstory with quotation marks around it is not meaningful dialogue. Don’t disguise your exposition as something it’s not for the sake of it. Weave in those details as they become relevant to the story and not just because the character is telling us.
Do you feel that MFAs give debut writers an advantage over their peers?
Yes and no. Getting my MFA made me a better writer and editor, so I know the value in MFA programs. That said, knowing a writer has an MFA won’t make me magically interested in a book if I wasn’t already. One advantage I see with MFA writers is they can take critique and revise really well. I like working with writers who have been through workshops. But, it is by no means a requirement and doesn’t automatically make someone a good writer.
MFAs from top programs do have an advantage sometimes, but it depends on what they’re writing. If I see someone from VCFA, The New School, or Simmons writing YA, I will take a closer look. If I see Iowa or NYU for literary adult fiction, same thing. Sarah Lawrence is becoming one of the top MFAs for speculative fiction. There are other programs that catch my eye too, but again, I’d have to be already interested in the premise.
One thing that might work against MFAs is that programs often favor craft over storytelling. I’m OK with that as far as education goes, but if a writer wants to be published, they need to learn beyond craft. Sometimes I see “MFA” in a query for a more commercial genre, and the books they compare it to are over 50 years old. That never bodes well. The book might be technically good, but is a book still good if it has no plot and feels dated? This is why it’s so important for writers to read in the markets they want to write, and continue this other aspect of their education on their own.
What changes have you seen in the YA market in recent years?
I think the biggest change, and my favorite one, is that I got to see YA grow from it’s trend-driven adolescence into its more inclusive adulthood. I came in around 2008-2010. Twilight already happened and The Hunger Games dystopian-era was just beginning. Then a few years later,The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor and Park helped bring contemporary/realistic back in a big way. It seemed like YA was publishing one genre at a time, which made it very hard to sell in anything that wasn’t the current trend. Now, the market is big enough to support multiple genres. There used to be an all-encompassing Young Adult section at B&N, and that ended up effecting how much shelf space/marketing dollars YA got. Now that section has expanded into “YA Romance,” “YA Paranormal/Fantasy,” and “YA Contemporary.” It still doesn’t get as many categories as the Adult section gets, but it’s certainly growing fast!
Sarah LaPolla joined Bradford Literary Agency as an agent in 2013 after working in the foreign rights department at Curtis Brown, Ltd., where she became an associate agent in 2010. Sarah received her MFA in Creative Writing from The New School in 2008, and has a B.A. in Creative Writing from Ithaca College. Representing MG, YA, and Adult fiction, Sarah is especially drawn to the following genres: contemporary/realistic fiction, sci-fi or speculative fiction, low fantasy, and literary horror. No matter the genre or market, Sarah’s authors tend to reflect larger themes in a character-driven story and offer a challenge to the status quo.
Greg Stewart is a writer and a student attending The New School in their Master’s program for Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism.