Krista Bean (Scripts & Scribes): What do you look for in a query letter? What might garner an immediate rejection (provided the query is in a genre you represent?)
Emma Patterson: “Provided that the query is in a genre you represent” is a key qualifier! I can’t tell you how many people write to me and say, “I see that you like transporting fiction, so you’re going to love my novella about vampires and coyotes battling demons…” While there are great agents who love that kind of book and know the market for it, I have to immediately reject something that’s so out of my wheelhouse. Beyond that, I look for a well-written query letter that describes an intriguing story or viewpoint, mentions the author’s writing credentials, and shows that the author has done some research on my personal taste and genres I represent.
Krista: People whose queries don’t follow the traditional format: creative free-thinkers or irritating rule-breakers?
Emma: Very generally-speaking, irritating rule breakers. Though it’s less of a “rule” issue and more that I don’t need a crazy, wild pitch to get my attention – if I connect with your writing and your story, then that’s more important than anything else. For me, connecting with the writing is the key element in a query (and a manuscript), and there’s no amount of non-traditional querying that can make up for that.
Krista: At what point in reading a manuscript do you know that it is – or isn’t – for you?
Emma: I know in the first 15 to 50 pages if a manuscript definitely isn’t for me. If I’m uncertain, I keep reading until I know that I’m not the right audience… or read through to the end, which is usually a sign that I’ve fallen in love with something.
Krista: What’s the ideal manuscript that could come across your desk right now?
Emma: That’s tough to answer because I’m never really looking for something in particular, and I like being surprised about what grabs me. That being said, I’m always eager to read fresh, funny, beautiful new voices in literary fiction. I’d love to find a really well-written contemporary YA with an unusual story. In the non-fiction realm, I’d love to see a narrative history, biography, or social commentary written by a journalist or scholar.
Krista: What’s the toughest part about your job? The most fun part?
Emma: By far, the toughest part of my job is handling rejection – both turning down projects for representation and relaying publisher’s rejections (or any other bad news, really) to my clients. That will never, ever be fun. On the flip side, being the bearer of good news is the best part. It’s wonderful to be able to tell someone I represent – whose work I clearly love and believe in – that we’ve found an editor who feels the same way.
Krista: How important do you consider conferences to be for aspiring writers?
Emma: I think conferences are one part of a larger system that’s really helpful to aspiring writers. Some sort of group reading/learning format – whether that’s a writing group, a writer’s conference, or MFA program – is a really great way for aspiring writers to hone their craft, get to know other writers, and learn about how publishing works.
Krista: How important is it for writers to have an online presence – both before signing with an agent, and after their books are published?
Emma: Let’s just say that having an online presence never hurts! On the fiction (and narrative non-fiction) side of things, it’s less important before signing an agent than it is when a writer’s book is being published. Leading up to and after publication, I try not to push writers to tweet or blog unless it’s something they want to do or can do, but it is good – at the very least – to have a manageable, visible website. Readers and booksellers like to have some way to connect to writers. For big, platform-driven non-fiction projects, it’s incredibly important for writers to have a very visible online presence at the point they’re finding an agent and a publisher.
Krista: Tying into the previous question, how much self-promotion should authors be willing to do?
Emma: At this moment in publishing, with every book needing as many promotional avenues as possible, it can be risky to close off one of those avenues. I think authors should be open to as much self-promotion as they are comfortable doing. It’s no longer a given that every publisher can put tons of promotional muscle and money behind every book, so if your publisher wants you to, say, ask your writer friends for blurbs, send you on a 10-city tour, reach out to your local booksellers, tweet on your publication day, etc., it’s good to be amenable to as much as possible. Self-promotion is uncomfortable for most people (myself included), but selling a book is hard enough – if it leads to finding new readers for your book, you should consider it.
Krista: Are there any especially helpful books, websites or other resources you’d recommend to aspiring writers?
Emma: Poets & Writers is a terrific resource for learning about the world of writing, writing programs, agents, contests, conferences, publishers, etc. The Association of Authors’ Representatives and Publishers Marketplace are great places to search for agents based on areas of interest.
Krista: What are your favorite books (that you haven’t represented)?
Emma: That’s a tough question. Even though Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto is one of the most unforgettable and gorgeous books I’ve ever read, I think I might love her memoir, Truth & Beauty, even more. There is no other book that so perfectly and honestly describes the importance, intensity, complexity, and pure beauty of female friendship. I recently read Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which is beautifully written and amazingly, refreshingly ambitious. It’s going to stay with me for a long time. Another all-time favorite will always be Nicole Krauss’s brilliant novel, The History of Love. Very few writers can intertwine seemingly disparate characters quite like Nicole Krauss can – moving effortlessly and lyrically between time, place, and character, The History of Love is haunting and wonderful. Even just thinking about that book makes my heart hurt.
Krista: If you could have dinner with three famous people, alive or dead, who would they be?
Emma: Anne Frank, Barack Obama, Charles Darwin, Tina Fey, and my grandmother, Kay. (Sorry, I couldn’t choose just three!)
Krista: Best place to live: Brooklyn, New Jersey, Ohio or Scotland?
Emma: I will always love the serenity I felt living in Ohio, so I might have to say Ohio… though Brooklyn in the spring is pretty tough to beat.
Krista: What are the best and worst foods you’ve ever eaten?
Emma: Best would be loukoumades in Greece. The worst would be the one time my father tried to experiment in the kitchen and made fish lasagna.
Emma Patterson is drawn to transporting stories and strong narrative voices. She represents fiction ranging from dark, literary novels and story collections to upmarket women’s fiction, historical fiction (with special interest in the 19th and 20th centuries), narrative non-fiction that includes pop culture, memoir, journalism, and history, and young adult fiction and non-fiction along similar lines. She is particularly interested in anything about the Yankees and stories that are set in Brooklyn, New Jersey, Ohio, or Scotland – all former places she has lived. Follow Emma on Twitter.
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