Q&A With A Literary Agent
by Cortney Winn
To many aspiring authors, the world of publishing exists as another realm, full of sun-eclipsing trees, feet-snaring vines, and mist-covered sinkholes. So, if publishing is an unnavigable forest, then literary agents would be the shiny wizard with the golden scroll of direction. And it just so happens I was lucky enough to find a shiny wizard—co-founder of Fuse Literary and director of the San Francisco Writers Conference—Laurie McLean, who graciously hosted an #AskMeAnything (AMA) for the benefit of us aspiring writers (who are constantly pulling ourselves out of those darned sinkholes).
Before I get into the nitty-gritty questions and answers from Laurie’s AMA, I want to invite you to her next AMA. That’s right, she’ll be hosting another #AskMeAnything and all aspiring writers are invited to join! All future AMA’s will be hosted on the SFWC Discord channel (a group chat app) is free and open to everyone. The channel is hosted by publishing professionals and is an invaluable free resource. In other words this link, https://discord.gg/E8YnACbr is your ticket out of those sinkholes and a guide to all the shiny wizards.
Okay, now that your phone is downloading the Discord app and linking you to the SFWC Discord channel, we will get into Laurie’s first AMA! Since the AMA is lengthy, I will only be touching on key points, but the whole AMA is available to read on the SFWC Discord channel through the link above. For the privacy of those involved, I have changed the names of those who participated.
LAURIE: Hi everyone! I’m Laurie Mclean, Director of the San Francisco Writers Conference and co-founder of Fuse Literary. It’s been such a weird 18 months [referring to Covid] for publishing and I can imagine people have. . . QUESTIONS! So I figured once a month [the last Monday of every month] I’d rev up the old brain and answer all questions great and small, personal and professional, with an eye towards helping you along your publishing path. Since I’m an agent AND a writers conference director, feel free to ask me anything about how to get published/how to get an agent as well as anything about the February San Francisco Writers Conference.
AJ: In the post-Covid-publishing world, what trends are you seeing in genre sales right now?
LAURIE: I am seeing a lot of stuff in general. For example, in Q1, editors were like sharks in the water once chum had been dumped from the agent boat. They bought a ton of manuscripts of all types. Political and celebrity nonfiction. Romcoms. Accessible science fiction. Diverse voices in every genre, age group and category. Lots of domestic suspense. Thrillers. Cozy mysteries. A lot of everything. Then it slowed down to a drip as editors soon overwhelmed themselves and realized that the pandemic was not over. They were still going to be working from home for the remainder of 2021. Mental health was out of control and depression set in. Buying of manuscripts slowed down to a crawl. Then as the spring wore on, vaccine rates rose, things looked promising, and they started buying in bulk again up until summer. When it became clear that Americans were suicidal, er, well, what I mean is it became clear that COVID was not going to go away due to conspiracy theories and selfishness. So things slowed down again. August has been nonexistent. Agents are also not working right now. But I fully expect a blast like in Q1 to start after Labor Day. Everyone vacationed like pros in August and will be on a more even keel in the fall. (Fingers crossed that my predictions come true!)
MADDY: Okay, I have a question. I’ve heard so many opposing formats for queries and I understand some formatting requests are unique to specific agents (like hook first, word count last), but I was wondering how are comps supposed to be typed? Are character names supposed to be capitalized? Should my manuscript be underlined? And should I mention my involvement in this group (SFWC Discord) in my author bio?
LAURIE: Maddy, I think you are nosediving into specifics that really don’t matter much. No agent is going to reject your work because you italicized a magazine article title instead of putting it in quotes. Concentrate instead on writing a compelling query letter that makes the voice of your story shine through in a succinct and strong way. Also, I like the format of the Hook, the Book, and the Cook. Probably because it’s easy to remember. LOL. But you hook the agent with your first sentence, where you share the promise of the book. Just like you hook your reader in the first scene. Then you expand on that hook with a paragraph summarizing the plot/main character of your manuscript. Finally, you give a sentence or three on your author bio. If you’re just starting out, it’s absolutely fine to just put, I’m a debut author.
JACK: Hi Laurie and team. Thank you for hosting this AMA. My questions are specifically for a query submission from a debut author.
What is on the Fuse “reject” checklist that will immediately stop an agent from considering a submission?
What is on the Fuse “must have” checklist that is a baseline for considering a full or partial request?
LAURIE: Hi Jack. Okay, here we go. Fuse reject list: pedophilia, rape, racism, misogny, bigotry, gratuitous violence, and things like that. Also, querying a Fuse agent who does not even represent what you write. For example, if you query me on memoir or graphic novels, I’d reject it without even reading it because I rep middle grade/ young adult/ adult genre fiction (romance, mysteries, thrillers, suspense, fantasy, science fiction, weird westerns). Now for the “must have" checklist, beyond the things each agent represents (which you can find in depth on our website, FuseLiterary.com), we all have #MSWL, which stands for Manuscript Wish List, where we go more in depth than just listing main categories, age groups and genres. I might say, “I’d love a middle grade group thriller that takes place in the desert southwest United States.” As an example.
ANNIE: Hello Laurie. Thank you for hosting this AMA. May I ask if you should or should not mention your intent on writing a trilogy?
LAURIE: Annie, if you’re asking about a query letter, assume that if your first book sells, the publisher will want more books from you, so you don’t need to mention that you’re hoping to write a series or trilogy. In fact, with mysteries and fantasy books, it is important that you are able to write a series. Mysteries need a protagonist that can carry the reader’s interest across many books. Fantasies are heavily weighted towards trilogies to tell the whole story because of the expanded world building, subplots and many characters. So it’s not really necessary to tell the editor or agent that you plan to write a series. If you absolutely need to say, “This is the first book in a planned trilogy,” go ahead as your final sentence to the query. It won’t hurt you. But really, all agents and editors know that authors dream of writing series. And that sentence takes up space that I’d rather see given to a plot point or the hook. The other way to say that a book has series potential is when mentioning your comps, list comp titles that are in a series.
RACHEL: Thanks for hosting this! Question: Is there a good resource for finding sensitivity readers?
LAURIE: Hi Rachel. Yes. Google them. It’s the biggest growth spot in the publishing industry. Some work for publishers. Some freelance. Do NOT just ask someone you know for a free read. Pay these professionals. You’ll be glad you did.
ANNIE: Do you have any thoughts on the market for collection on short stories? Novellas?
LAURIE: Annie, I’d heavily advise you to get your short stories and novellas published individually online and in print with ‘zines and anthologies. That way you build your fan base over time with each story that is out there and when you do finally have a collection of great work, then you have sales facts and figures to intrigue a publisher instead of just the writing itself. You need both.
There you have it folks. I want to thank Laurie McLean once again for hosting the AMA and for letting me share it with you here on the Word Addicts blog. If you’d like to learn more about Laurie and Fuse Literary, go to https://www.fuseliterary.com/laurie-mclean/. If you’d like to be a part of future AMA’s or read past AMA’s, download the Discord app on your computer or phone and click this link to join the SFWC Discord channel: https://discord.gg/E8YnACbr. You won’t regret it, and I hope to see you there!
Cortney is a writer, baker, speaker, mom. "I’ll just come out and admit it," she says, "I like Twilight. And while I’m admitting things, I'm a die-hard romantic. I enjoy building raw chemistry between my characters and bitter-sweet endings." Cortney's first short story, Clueless is published in the Miscellany anthology and she is currently working on her debut adult thriller.