Mary has worked in editorial as well, with a stint at Chronicle Books. Her editorial background--along with her MFA in Creative Writing-- makes her a hands-on agent, working to develop each project she takes on to its full potential.
You'll find her sharing her knowledge and advice at a number of SCBWI and other events both in person and online (more on that below) as well as her terrific blog, Kidlit.com.
You started as an Agent with Andrea Brown Literary in August 2009. What drew you to agenting books for young readers?
I've always been drawn to children's books, and to kids. I have an inner age of about sixteen. With that in mind, I wanted to work on books that captured that spark, those possibilities, the electric, alive feeling of being a kid. Too many adults around me seem to have stopped seeing the magic of life. And kids' books not only foster the idea of magic in everyday life, but they also inspire other magical things: reading, creativity, imagination, strength, hope, laughter. Children's books really do have the power to change lives. They give kids friends, they make kids into lifelong readers, they empower kids to tell their own stories. If, at the end of the day, I have any hand in changing lives with books, I'm happy.
My goals in the first year, and my goals as I start my second year, are to find great talent and to become savvier about the marketplace. The first goal, finding talent, is always part effort, part kismet. I keep a blog--kidlit.com--and go to conferences. I do what I can to get my name out there and attract submissions. But most of my clients have come from serendipitous queries in the slush, great conference connections, or referrals. At the end of the day, I just need to be open to receiving my next great client, however they come to me. I can't do much more than that. It's frustrating, sure, because I want to find that amazing new project now now now, but it's also liberating, since there's so much chance involved and I'm just along for the ride.
My other goal--being savvy about the market--has kicked into high gear since I moved to Brooklyn in July. I'm meeting a lot of editors, studying publisher catalogs, and reading upcoming and previous releases. I've been reading like mad this summer, actually. The more I know, the more of an asset I am to my clients, so I've really been pounding the pavement and hitting the books. The big difference between my first year and my second year is that I am now being more selective in what I take on, since I have a great base of clients already. That's not to say that I wasn't selective initially, but I was really aggressively building my list. Now I know a lot more about agenting and the marketplace, and I feel like I'm making better, stronger choices. I'm still very much looking for talent, but I feel like I can take my time now and be really picky. I'd say I can sum up my goals in agenting and in life with, "Read and learn more and more every day."
You have a popular blog on which you offer generous servings of advice. As a newer agent, why did you choose to blog. Should writers blog?
I caused a flap on my blog recently by suggesting that not all aspiring writers blog. I stick by what I said. For some writers, blogging is a great source of community. For others, they would probably be better served by writing, not social networking. I love my blog--it was a great way for me to get my name out there and is now a great way for me to practice my passions for teaching and for the writing craft--but it's a lot of work. Blogging isn't for the faint of heart, and you really have to have great, valuable content in order to hook and keep your readers.
You answer questions from your blog readers. Are there a few that come up over and over?
People are obsessed with queries. Sure, they can be the only thing an agent sees before deciding your fate as a writer. But Andrea Brown asks for sample pages and I always look at the writing. The key to a strong story is simple: make me care. Tell me about your character and their story in a way that I want to read on. Lots of writers over think the query when they should be doing more revision on the actual project. Also, unpublished writers love to talk about numbers and royalties and ebooks. A lot of that is premature, since they don't have a publishing contract to worry about yet. I'm all about writers who are informed and know how publishing works, but I feel like most are best served, at least at the early stages, by focusing on writing.
There's a manuscript wish list on your blog. Does that change with any sort of frequency? And are you currently open to queries?
I'm very much open to queries. And the list changes occasionally. I am still looking for all those things on the Wish List, and they tend to reflect my favorite themes and subjects. But it's all about the execution. I've gotten a lot of ghost books since I put out a call for ghost books, and only one has really hit the spot, and it's just one spin on a ghost story. I'd love to find more. There are things I want to add to the list.
Overall, I find myself craving darker, edgier, older YA these days. Not "darker" in terms of "let's put a vampire in it." In fact, please don't. I just have a very sarcastic, edgy, dark, morbid, creepy side to myself, something my inner sixteen year old can really relate to, and I'd love to see something complex and sophisticated along those lines. If I had anything to say about most of the submissions I get, it's that they're not complex or sophisticated enough. Teens are such smart readers and their lives are super rich and full. I expect nothing less from teens in books. Too many stories seem like they just take me from point A to point B without any depth or meat.
Are you participating in any upcoming events where writers can hear you speak and meet you?
Yes! I have tons of events on my list. I'm doing a Writers Digest online webinar on September 23rd. Writers from all over the place will be able to call in and hear it. A week later, on the 30th, I'm teaching a Learning Annex class in Manhattan. October is a busy travel month for me. The 8th through 10th, I'll be in Ohio, and the 15th through 16th, I'll be in Wisconsin, both for the SCBWI. On the 21st, I'm heading to Florida for the weekend for the Florida Writers Association. In November, I'm in South Dakota the 5th to the 7th, also for the SCBWI. In January 2011, I'm doing a Writers Digest conference on the 21st to the 23rd, and then the SCBWI Annual Winter Conference in New York that's the weekend of January 28th.
I'm also thrilled to be doing the Big Sur Writers Workshop, hosted by my agency. It's a small group intensive workshop-based conference that takes place in beautiful Northern California. One weekend is December 3rd through 5th, the other weekend is March 4th through 6th, 2011.
You just participated in the online WriteOnCon. How was it?
It was great! My client Jamie Harrington was one of the organizers. My favorite bit about it was that I got to troll through people's queries and sample pages that they'd posted on the forums. It was like getting to pick and choose my pitch appointments (usually agents have no control over who pitches them at in-person conferences). I also loved how much of a turnout there was. I know that a lot of people don't have the ability to travel to conferences. While I think the SCBWI regions do such a great job of bringing great opportunities to writers, I know lots of writers who, for one reason or another, haven't been able to make a conference. This lets everyone participate. Finally, it was really fun to create content for the attendees. I ended up doing my very first vlog! It sounds like WriteOnCon might keep featuring content and chats throughout the year, and I'm excited to keep participating.
Could you offer a piece of advice (or two) to writers looking for agents?
My biggest piece of advice is to really work on the craft. That happens when you read, write, read, write, read, write, lather, rise, repeat. Publication will still be there when you've polished a great manuscript. Agents will still be there when you're truly ready to query. But your writing and your premise really have to blow me away. So work on it. Really work on it. Don't just get out there and start querying because that's the next step in the process. The step before publication--the writing-a-publishable-book step--can be a long and frustrating but wonderful and fulfilling one. And, above all, it's a necessary step. Don't rush it.
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