It’s been a while since we’ve done one of these, but this installment of “Agent-Author Chat,” which features agent Marietta Zacker of Nancy Gallt Literary Agency and author Kristin Rae, was worth the wait. I’m so thrilled to share the story of how they came to work together.
Ms. Rae’s answers will appear in orange, Ms. Zacker’s in blue. I also asked Ms. Rae to share the exact responses she entered in Ms. Zacker’s query form, since I figured those would be helpful for those of you who are gearing up to query Ms. Zacker. Those responses are directly below, and then the interview itself is below that. Enjoy!
Tell us a little about yourself: A sociology major from Texas A&M University, I started writing my first novel during my graduation ceremony and realized too late I may have studied the wrong thing. I’m from Houston, Texas, and travel as often as I can afford. This story was inspired by my own trip to Italy. I'm an active member of SCBWI.
Why did you choose to submit to us? Your client list is amazing--I've been following Hilary Wagner's blog since before her first book came out, and I adore her.
Title of manuscript: IF ONLY YOU WERE ITALIAN
Genre/Age group: YA Contemporary
Word count: 80,000
Sum up your manuscript in no more than three sentences: When seventeen-year-old Pippa Preston ditches her summer art program abroad, she sets out on her own in hopes of falling in love with an Italian, but the road to amore gets detoured when she's torn between a sexy local and a hunky American archaeology student. As she explores the famous cities of Rome and Pompeii, Pippa must sort out her feelings before her parents figure out where she really is, ending her short-lived dream of independence.
What would your main character say to us on behalf of your work? "When in Rome..."
KV: Ms. Rae, how did you first come up with the idea for IF ONLY YOU WERE ITALIAN?
KR: When my husband and I went to Italy with friends in 2009, I knew it would make a great setting. But it wasn’t until 2011 after I read Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins that real inspiration struck. I thought, what if Anna ditched the school and did her own thing instead? In ITALY? And I like summer books, so setting most of the story in the seaside villages of Cinque Terre (my favorite place I’ve ever been) was a no-brainer.
KV: Tell us a little bit about your query-writing process. Did you work on it here and there as you were writing the manuscript, or before, or after? How many times did you revise it? And how did you decide what order to put things in?
KR: I didn’t write the query until my manuscript was in the revision stage and I really believed I had something that might go somewhere. I wrote a couple drafts of the story blurb part on my own before I sent it to my critique partners to tear to shreds (which they did), and worked in their suggestions with each round of tweaking. There must have been over twenty versions of it before I had one I was relatively pleased with.
I won a query critique from a published author in a blog contest and she was the one who helped me structure it. Her tips really helped me smooth things out, and I knew her own query had worked, so I listened!
KV: What was the hardest thing about writing your query? What was the easiest?
KR: I had a hard time working in my character’s voice. Trying to jam 300+ pages of story into one paragraph while demonstrating personality?? It was torture for me.
The easiest thing was picking comp books to give agents an idea where I saw my book fitting in the market.
KV: Ms. Zacker, when you first read Ms. Rae’s query, what caught your attention?
MZ: Kristin’s writing. No doubt about it. She trusts her characters to tell the story she must tell, the one she so clearly sees playing out in her head. That and “When in Rome…”--I knew Pippa before I received the full manuscript and once I did, it was clear that Kristin knew her inside and out.
KV: Obviously, the manuscript met--or exceeded--your expectations. What did you love about IF ONLY YOU WERE ITALIAN?
MZ: Kristin’s writing. Oh no, too repetitive (albeit factual)! Kristin gives readers the opportunity to experience her characters’ emotions rather than tell you about them. She also plotted her story carefully and struck a very nice balance in her pacing of the story. The storytelling is phenomenal (she transports you to wherever her characters are) and when you reach the end, you simply want to start all over again.
KV: How quickly did you read Ms. Rae’s manuscript? Is that pretty typical of your response times on requested material, or do those vary?
MZ: It is scary for me to answer this question because, admittedly, my journey with IF ONLY was quicker than with most. However, I have to give credit to Kristin for writing such an irresistible story.
Having said that, her writing combined with sheer great timing made it possible for me to read it as quickly as I did (emphasis on the writing!). I try very hard to be very respectful of the fact that people are waiting on my responses, but sometimes I am pulled away from what I want to do every minute of the day (read!) to take care of issues that simply can’t be put off. The true answer to your question is that it varies quite a bit and silence on my part should never be taken as a lack of interest. It is true that files sometimes sit for longer than I want them to (without me opening them even to glance at page 1), so there is no easy answer to your question except to say that my response time is ‘as quickly as possible.’
KV: Ms. Rae, what tips do you have for fellow writers as they work on their queries?
KR: RESEARCH. I think too many people just throw queries out to any agent that’s open, when it’s really important to research exactly what each agent is looking for. Query agents that have holes in their list that your book fits into.
I also think sometimes it’s tempting to try to talk yourself up and highlight how many blog or twitter followers you have, but the query is the space to pitch your book, and it’s a very small space that’s not to be wasted!
KV: Same question to you, Ms. Zacker. What query-writing suggestions do you have?
MZ: Kristin hit the nail on the head. I care about the writing (and the illustrations) most. Yes, of course, the creative plays a major role…eventually. However, what brings us together are the words and images, so that’s where you need to focus your energy. Presumably you have already done so with the project you’re presenting; now you’re simply shining a bright light on it.
Also, when you hear ‘do your homework,’ that means beyond looking for addresses and lists of agents, try to find the people and places where you would say, unequivocally, “I would want to partner with that person and agency because they will understand me and my work.”
KV: Any last words of advice or encouragement you’d like to share with us?
KR: Don’t give up and complain you couldn’t do it. If it’s in you, you can get there. It takes a lot of HARD WORK!
MZ: Understand that this is as a process not very different from applying for a job--and one that you want to turn into a career. Approach it with the same kind of focus and energy you would any other prospective venture of that magnitude. If that’s where you are, then you have an idea of the path to get yourself there and that path’s first stepping stone must be a commitment to your writing and your artistry.
Notice that for me it’s a commitment, not simply a desire. That commitment is loaded, so the stone must be mighty strong. However, once you’ve stepped on it with conviction, the rest will probably lead to twists and turns (some unexpected), but it will get you where you want to go. As for encouragement: please note that Kristin and I came together via the almighty slush (but do note that she followed her own great advice!)
Thank you, ladies, for these responses! And for those of you who are as excited about IF ONLY YOU WERE ITALIAN as I am, you should know it recently sold to Bloomsbury and will come out next spring! I. Can’t. Wait.
Have a great weekend, all. If you’re at BEA, please leave an update! :)