Patricia Nelson

Interview with literary agent Patricia Nelson of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.

Krista Bean (Scripts & Scribes): What do you look for in a query letter?  What might garner an immediate rejection?

Patricia Nelson: The query letter is a very specific genre, and I would recommend that all querying authors research tips on the format online before sending one off. In my opinion, the best query letters are no more than 300 words, and include the following elements (generally in this order):

  • a brief introduction to the novel’s main character (i.e. “Susan is a punk rocker who wants nothing more than to spend her days rocking out in the garage…”)
  • an concise explanation of the catalyst for the plot (“But everything changes for Susan when…”)
  • a quick description of what dilemma Susan will face over the course of the story and why it matters (“Now Susan will have to decide… and it looks either way she just might lose…”)
  • title, genre, and word count of the book
  • (optional) a short bio listing previous publication credits, membership in any writer’s organizations like RWA or SCBWI, and relevant degrees (if you have an MFA, for example, list it here)

Immediate rejections are reserved for queries that are much too long, much too short, outright rude, or written in a foreign language. I tend to be fairly forgiving of small mistakes (even, say, misspelling my name), but still, it’s worth keeping in mind that you only get one chance to make a first impression.

Krista:  Have you ever requested a full manuscript off of a query letter, or do you always look at partials, synopses, etc. first?

Patricia:  I generally request partials first, but will sometimes request a full if I’ve seen and liked other projects by the author previously or if the book sounds like it hits one of my wish list items exactly.

Krista:  At what point in reading a manuscript do you know that it is – or isn’t – for you?

Patricia:  I generally know if a manuscript has potential to be a fit for me in the first ten pages, based on whether I like the voice and writing style. If I make it that far, I usually give the book about 50-100 pages to get me interested in the character and plot, depending on how much I loved the writing. If I’ve made it that far and am still interested, I’ll likely end up reading the full manuscript. Sometimes I know for sure that I want to represent the book the second that I read the last sentence, but if I’m on the fence, I’ll probably take a few days to mull it over, maybe ask a colleague to read as well. When a manuscript keeps me reading all the way until the end, I know there’s something special there, so I always consider the project very seriously before passing.

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Krista:  What would you love to see come across your desk right now?

Patricia:  Currently, I’m especially looking for contemporary and historical romance, accessible literary fiction (especially about artists or the creative world), and women’s fiction (my taste here skews more Sarah Addison Allen and less Jodi Picoult). I’m keeping my eye out for a great historical novel set in the twentieth century to add to my list. And I would love to find something with an fresh, interesting take on gender and sexuality in the modern world, a la Ariel Schrag’s Adam.

In addition, I represent young adult and middle grade fiction, and in both categories contemporary/realistic fiction and magical realism are at the top of my wish list right now. I would also be excited to find a YA fantasy that feels genuinely different and unique – someone writing in the tradition of Tamora Pierce, Kristen Cashore, and Sarah J. Maas who manages to bring something new and all their own to the table.

Across genres and age categories, I’m always interested in seeing projects with interesting female protagonists, diverse characters, and complex, intriguing relationships (both romantic and otherwise).

Krista:  You worked as both an intern and an assistant before becoming an agent.  How did those positions prepare you for, or influence, what you do now?

Patricia:  Agenting is an apprenticeship business – there’s no book you can buy to teach you how to be an agent, or degree you can get that will fully prepare you for this profession. I’ve been lucky enough to work for and with some really fantastic agents, and it’s impossible to even begin to list how much I’ve learned just from watching them conduct business. In fact, I’m simply not sure how you could do this job without being an intern and/or assistant first!

Krista:  What’s the toughest part about your job?  The most fun part?

Patricia:  I think every agent will tell you that they hate sending rejections – that’s not what we got into this business to do, and it’s a drag. There are lots of fun parts to make up for it, though: the rush of finding a manuscript that you fall in love with, signing a new client, sending out a project you’re excited about to editors, telling an author that there’s an offer on their book—plus, of course, the books themselves!

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Krista:  How important do you consider conferences to be for aspiring writers?

Patricia:  It’s important that aspiring writers somehow get involved in writing communities and educate themselves about publishing – conferences are one way to do that, but not the only way. There are great resources online as well, and the writing community on twitter in particular is robust and welcoming.

Krista:  How important is it for a writer to have an online presence – both before signing with an agent, and after his/her book is published?

Patricia:  Before signing a writer, I like to see that they’ve at least started to dip their toe into building an online presence—a twitter account, website, or blog will show me that you’re aware that you need to be out there on the internet, and can also help me get a sense of if I think we would be a personality fit. That said, when I am considering signing a writer, it’s not important to me how many followers someone has or if their blog is super polished, just that they’ve made some sort of effort. (Expectations are different for nonfiction, which I don’t represent.)

Once your book is published, I would say that it is imperative to have a website, a twitter account, and an author facebook page, as a baseline. Maybe a Pinterest or Instagram account as well, if you like those platforms. But this is something an agent can help you navigate.

Krista:  Tying into the previous question, how much self-promotion should an author be willing to do?

Patricia:  Frankly, a lot. There are things that you and your agent can (and should) ask a publisher to do for you on the publicity side, but there is no substitute for being a presence online and making a personal connection with existing readers and potential readers. This doesn’t mean spamming people with buy links, which is more of a turn-off than an asset. On the contrary, the best promotion you can do for your books as an author is to be visible, support other writers, give back to the community, share interesting things, and generally use social media and other online avenues to convey that you have a perspective that others might be interested in.

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Krista:  What are your favorite books (that you haven’t represented)?

Patricia:  So, so many. Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, anything by Laini Taylor, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, anything by Sara Zarr, Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, Just As Long as We’re Together by Judy Blume, The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, The Fairy Rebel by Lynne Reid Banks, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Crystal Singer by Anne McCaffrey, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, anything by Octavia Butler, Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi, Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple… I could go on… You open a dangerous door when you ask a book person their favorite books, but hopefully this gives you a good cross-section of my taste.

Krista:  With which authors, alive or dead, would you like to have dinner?

Patricia:  Judy Blume, Joan Didion, and Margaret Atwood, preferably together.

Krista:  Nicest spring weather: Williamsburg, Los Angeles or Austin?

Patricia:  Another tough question! Williamsburg (Virginia, not Brooklyn) gets coldest of the three in winter, so I think the spring there is most satisfying.

Krista:  Dogs or cats?

Patricia:  Cats, always cats.

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Patricia Nelson joined Marsal Lyon Literary Agency in 2014. Previously, she worked at The Angela Rinaldi Literary Agency and in the children’s division at Running Press.  She represents adult, young adult, and middle grade fiction.  Patricia received her bachelor’s degree from the College of William and Mary in 2008, and also holds a master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Southern California and a master’s degree in Gender Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. Before joining the world of publishing, she spent four years as a university-level instructor of literature and writing.  Follow Patricia on Twitter at @patricianels.

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