Friday, September 6, 2013

Agent-Author Chat: Rebecca Podos and Mackenzi Lee

I've got a great interview for you today with Rebecca Podos of Rees Literary Agency and one of her newest clients, Team Krista alum Mackenzi Lee. As you'll recall, Ms. Lee's entry garnered the most votes of any entry on any team and was a major contributor to Team Krista's success this year. When I found out she'd signed with Ms. Podos, I was beyond delighted but not at all surprised.

Ms. Lee's query and answers will appear in orange, Ms. Podos's in blue. Enjoy!

Ms. Lee's Query I am seeking representation for my 67,000 word YA historical fantasy, DEATH AND THE GLASSMAKER'S DAUGHTER. After reading in your agency bio that you enjoy character driven fiction as well as historical fiction and fantasy, I thought the manuscript might appeal to you.

As the son of Death, Moriarty was raised believing in the beauty of ending a life. Then he takes over his father’s work and finds that ripping souls from mortal bodies is nothing like the stories that populated his childhood. It’s violent and bloody, and with imperialism, labor strikes, and people's revolutions leaving corpses around the world, Moriarty can’t find anything to love in his new work.

Until he meets his next victim: Rocsanne Vetrario, the bold, bohemian daughter of Venetian glaziers. Instead of ending her life, Moriarty accidentally saves it, thus kindling a friendship that tumbles into love amid the canals of 1890s Venice.

But their summer together shatters when Moriarty learns that Rocsanne’s stepmother Lavinia is on a crusade to recover the lost secrets of Venetian glass and its power to bestow immortality. When Lavinia discovers her daughter’s romance with the soul collector himself, she threatens to kill Rocsanne unless Moriarty helps her retrieve a piece of the legendary glass.

Surrendering the glass will give Lavinia control over Moriarty and his work, but if Rocsanne dies, he’ll lose her forever to the afterlife. With Lavinia holding Rocsanne hostage on the cemetery island of San Michele, Moriarty has to choose between his own freedom and the only girl who ever loved Death.

The manuscript is a stand alone with series potential, and I believe it will appeal to fans of Libba Bray's Gemma Doyle trilogy and Grave Mercy by R.L. LaFevers. I am currently a graduate student at Simmons College, earning my MFA in writing for children and young adults. I have had short pieces published in Talkin’ Blues, Pandora’s Box, The Friend, and The Newport Review.

Below are the first three chapters of the manuscript. Thank you for your time and consideration.

KV: Ms. Lee, how did you first come up with the idea for DEATH AND THE GLASSMAKER'S DAUGHTER?

ML: I have been obsessed with Venice (the setting of the novel) since I read The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke at age 10. When I finally went there during a year abroad, it was as beautiful and magical as Scipio and the gang promised it would be, and by the time I left, I had a hard-core crush on Venice. While there, I became fascinated with Venetian glass blowing. I learned a lot of random facts about glass blowing on that trip (and did a fair amount of salivating over the finished products and wishing I was not poor), then tucked it all away in my brain for later use (I thought probably in Trivial Pursuit, or in the off chance I ever made it on Jeopardy and the category was “Ancient Italian Arts”).

After my year abroad ended, I spent a summer working a miserable retail job that involved a lot of mindless folding and wishing I were back in Europe. Writing was how I warded off the dreariness. I started getting into some online writing communities, and I remember seeing a prompt somewhere--”Death’s last confession” (if you are the person/website who posted this, I owe you so much!!!! Please tell me so I can send cookies and cash!!!). That phrase got stuck in my head like a song--I thought about it for days!--and somewhere along the way, it morphed into “Death falls in love.” Which sent my brain into overdrive. I have a very clear memory of hanging up shirt after shirt after shirt (they had to be sorted by color--ugh) and repeating that phrase to myself. That plot bug eventually fused with my previously useless knowledge of Venetian glass blowing, and that became the idea that sparked my manuscript.

So long story short: It is a child of useless trivia and shelving shirts. Because writing is glamorous.

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?

ML: I didn’t work on the query until I was almost done with the manuscript, because writing queries is too painful if you aren’t going to finish, and for a long time, I didn’t know if I would. When I finally did write my query, I revised it more times than I can count. There were at least five times I deleted it all and started over, and there were also a few drafts that were mostly expletives. However, I was very lucky to be working on my query while doing my first year of my MFA, so I had a lot of creative and smart people around me who helped me with the structure, wording, and what to include. 

KV: What was the hardest thing about writing your query? What was the easiest?

ML: The hardest thing about writing the query was writing the query.

The second hardest part was not throwing up every time I emailed it to an agent.

The third hardest thing was wrestling my constant and pure-bred anxiety into submission and accepting the fact that eventually I was going to have to step back and let it live. In the end, moving around commas in the query letter was just an excuse for putting off the actual querying.  

The easiest part of the whole process was saying yes to Rebecca’s offer--as soon as we talked, I knew I had found the right fit for me and my manuscript!

KV: Ms. Podos, when you first read Ms. Lee’s query, what caught your attention?
RP: I was drawn in by the balance of high-concept ideas and specific details in her query. Ms. Lee mentioned at the start that her book was historical fantasy, that it featured the son of Death and the art of collecting souls. Right away I was intrigued by that exploration of art and death, and how the connection between the two would be investigated in a YA story.

Then in the very next paragraph, she spoke about the imperialism, labor strikes and people’s revolutions of the 1890s weighing down on her main character.  That gave me an idea how the bigger themes of the book would translate into the finer points of storytelling. It sounds morbid, but the idea of the 1890s as this big, bloody sandbox for Ms. Lee’s story to play in really made me want to read.
She went on to summarize the plot very capably, and I saw that it was a kind of Romeo and Juliet story between the son of Death and the daughter of a family chasing immortality. So in the space of three hundred or so words, I knew the book had a beautiful overarching idea, a fascinating use of time and place, and an intriguing high-stakes plot. What more could I ask for from a query?
KV: Obviously, the manuscript met--or exceeded--your expectations. What did you love about DEATH AND THE GLASSMAKER'S DAUGHTER?
RP: The same things I loved in the query! DEATH AND THE GLASSMAKER’S DAUGHER (or DATGT, as Ms. Lee and I have abbreviated for convenience) had a perfect balance of high-concept idea, compelling plot, and nitty-gritty storytelling, all conveyed through beautiful prose.

The big ideas of Love and Death and Art and Language were explored not just as big ideas, but in the world-building details of the story. How great is it that the scars on Death’s hands were memories--a physical manifestation of what memories mean to mortals? How perfect that Moriarty, Death’s son, posed in the mortal world as an art collector?
The book was funny, too--there was, for example, some excellent cravat-based humor, reason enough alone to sign DATGD.
And of course, most of all, there were the characters. Moriarty was so human in so many ways, in all the wonderful ways that matter. And Rocsanne was no damsel in distress, but she wasn’t the stereotypical feisty love interest. She was s smart, talented and brave and trapped; she could be scared and strong and in love and in pain all at once.  
DATGD was the complete package.
KV: How quickly did you read Ms. Lee's manuscript? Is that pretty typical of your response times on requested material, or do those vary?
RP: Looking back through my e-mails, it seems I asked Mackenzie to send the full manuscript on a Tuesday, and called her to offer representation on Wednesday. I would have to say that a one-day turnaround is not typical. But if I really fall in love with a book from the start, if I’m so excited and eager to edit it instead of wary about the work a book will need, I do try to respond within a week or two.

If I see great potential in a book, but also that there are somewhat substantial edits necessary, it takes me a little longer to weigh my love for the book against the work I’d be asking the author to do. I might read it a second time, more analytically. And sometimes I’m just swamped with reading--redrafts from my clients, books I promised I’d look at for fellow agents, submissions I requested first. So that can definitely slow things down.

KV: Ms. Lee, what tips do you have for fellow writers as they work on their queries?

ML: It’s important to have other people read your query, but be selective about who those people are. When I first started, I posted my query on a few online forums. I got a lot of feedback. So much feedback that I became paralyzed by it. I couldn’t sort out what was worth applying and what wasn’t.

It also battered my self esteem a bit; with so many people picking apart my query (and the plot of my manuscript!), pretty soon there was nothing about it that someone hadn’t said they hated. When you’re querying you have to keep your confidence in reserve, because it is so fragile and hard to come by. You can’t waste it on random people online who may or may not know what they’re talking about.

Ask people whose opinion you value to read your query and give you advice. It’s also handy to ask people who haven’t read your manuscript to read the query. If they can understand your plot, then you’re in business. 

KV: Same question to you, Ms. Podos. What query-writing suggestions do you have?
RP: Focus on your story. Not an anecdote about the idea for the novel occurring to you in a greasy spoon diner on a cross-country road trip. Not how much your friends and family loved the manuscript when they read it. Not how nervous you are about the querying process. Just like the back cover of a book has a limited space to convince you to pick it up and take it to the register, you have a few paragraphs at most to convince an agent you can tell a story with great ideas, with a compelling plot and with beautiful details. Choose the right details, do justice to your characters and show us your voice.

KV: Any last words of advice or encouragement you’d like to share with us?

ML: Like most writers, I have major self-confidence issues. I am miserable at talking about my own writing and I’m usually pretty shy about even admitting that I write. But when you’re first starting out, you are your only advocate. So be confident in yourself and your work. If you are querying, you’ve already made it further than a lot of people do. You have finished a novel, which by itself is a sort of miracle. Be proud of that! 

Also, as soon as you start to query, you should also start working on your next project. Rejection is easier to take when you have something else to be in love with.

RP: It only takes one person, the right person, to say yes to you and your book. When the right person says yes, the ten or twenty or forty no’s will cease to matter.  Read everything you can, write the best book you can, do as much research as you can before submitting, write the best query you can, use what criticism you can, and leave the no’s behind you (as best you can.)

Excellent advice, Ms. Lee and Ms. Podos. Thank you for these thoughts and for sharing this small part of your journey together with us. I cannot WAIT to see DEATH AND THE GLASSMAKER'S DAUGHTER on the shelves:)


Rissa said...

Great interview! Great advice! Thanks for posting this. The inspiration and wisdom was needed!

Karen Clayton said...

What lovely writing and such a compelling story. Overall beautiful! I certainly must add this one to my reading list.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for reading everyone! And thanks Krista for the great interview!

Karen lee Hallam said...

Congratulations! The story sounds Amazing, I'd love to read it. And I will--lol! Excellent advice, especially about putting your work up in public forums. I, too, did the same--with the same result. Aye, listening to our soft internal voice, is not always easy.

All the best for both of you! Sounds like a great book!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

You're welcome, Rissa! And I agree--Mackenzi and Rebecca gave excellent advice.

Karen, I've only read a small sample of Mackenzi's work, but I can still attest that it is beautiful:)

My pleasure, Mackenzi!

Karen #2, I think public forums can be a source of helpful feedback (I like that the relative anonymity allows people to say what they really think), but they can be brutal, especially for first-timers. I didn't have the courage to post my query on one until I was working on my third manuscript...

Myrna Foster said...

I can't wait to read this one. It sounds fabulous. Thanks for another great interview!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Doesn't it, Myrna?! I hope Ms. Podos sells this one fast!

Janel Comeau said...

Congratulations to both of you! The book looks great, I'll definitely look for it when it comes out. Thanks for posting this!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

You're welcome, Janel!