Interview with literary agent Daniel Lazar of Writers House.
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?)
Daniel Lazar: Better to focus on a great query than focusing on a query worth immediate rejection. The best queries are invested with voice and specific details. Not necessarily a full synopsis of the whole book, but just a sense of what is amazing about the book. Whatever is visceral and evocative (or funny! or sad! or scary! or fascinating! or some or all of these) about the book itself– if a writer can invest a hint of that in the letter, it’s golden. For example, try to sniff out descriptions that are broad or general or vague. Replace them with descriptions that are specific, surprising, curious, interesting. Don’t say “John is quirky.” Say HOW John is quirky. Don’t say “Sarah is frustrated.” Show HOW she is frustrated. The query letter will hopefully be transformed as a much more effective window into your actual book.
Krista: People whose queries don’t follow the traditional format: creative free-thinkers or irritating rule-breakers?
Daniel: It’s usually the latter. There are no “rules” in this process; I always dislike making authors think they must check off a list of DO THIS OR ELSE rules to write a letter. But generally, the writing is where the best surprises happen; not in format — unless the unique format is part of the book’s appeal.
Krista: At what point in reading a manuscript do you know that it is – or isn’t – for you?
Daniel: I can usually tell if it’s not for me in the first few lines. If it’s for me… well, the first few lines can make my heart race and give me *that* feeling, but I generally need to read further into the manuscript to know if it’s a book that speaks to me as an agent, that I feel I’d be added value in terms of my experience and publisher-relationships, and that I want to discuss further with the author.
Krista: You state that you’re interested in historical fiction. Any specific time periods you’d like to see?
Daniel: I am open to being swept away into ANY time period, let me assert this up front! That said, I am always a sucker for the American Civil War, World War 1 or 2, French Revolution(ish), the Tudors(ish), the Renaissance. I would be curious to find a sweeping, majestic, universal story of the American Revolution — but I imagine one that is set not just in the Colonies, but across the ocean as well, seeing our storied history (the way we learn it in school) from a new, bigger, grittier perspective. I should add what a sucker I am, too, for hints of magic in a story of sprawling time and place. Think: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell; The Magicians; The Discovery of Witches. Yes, please.
Krista: What’s the ideal manuscript that could come across your desk right now?
Daniel: I will get back to you when it lands… hopefully very soon.
Krista: What’s the toughest part about your job? The most fun part?
Daniel: The toughest part is when I fall in love with a client’s work, and for whatever reason, the world doesn’t agree! Whether it’s being unable to find a publisher, or even past that, when the publisher who bought the book loses that initial “zsa-zsa-zu” — or most confoundingly, when everyone inside the team is 110% on the case, and yet somehow the world outside our control (the reviewers, or booksellers, or just the readers out there in Actual Real World) doesn’t respond the book, or even come to the book and give it a whirl, as we’d hoped. The most fun part is seeing my author’s book on the subway — usually a kid sitting on the edge of the subway seat because they’re hauling a huge backpack, concreting very intently… I strain to look, just hard enough to see what they’re reading, but not too hard so as to worry a parent beside them, and aha!– realize I recognize the page they’re on. It’s only happened a few times, but it’s a treasure when it does.
Krista: How important do you consider conferences to be for aspiring writers?
Daniel: It depends on the writer’s expectation. Conferences can be a wonderful experience. You’re an aspiring writer who’s been working solitarily for goodness knows how long. Your spouse and your friends and your kids and your parents and whomever have heard much (so much!) about your work in progress, and they’re supportive, but they don’t truly *get* it. To you, a writers conference can be a lifeline. Where else can you sit in a ballroom with hundreds of other people who all love books and writing as much as you? And hopefully the conference offers sessions or workshops or lectures that offer practical tips or general inspiration, to return back to your writing desk re-energeized. But if the writer’s expectation is “I’m going to this conference to find an agent” or “to find a publisher” — then this is too high a bar. It’s certainly possible, you never know… But a great query letter and of course the manuscript that delivers on the promise of that letter — these are the ultimate key(s) to taking that next step; the conference is a stepping stone.
Krista: How important is it for writers to have an online presence – both before signing with an agent, and after their books are published?
Daniel: It’s incredibly helpful if it’s genuine. If I’m interested in a writer, and I can google them and find a charming twitter profile, or a great blog with pics or links or whatever, I suddenly have a sense of the person behind the pages, even before I get on the phone. (Again, this is the step after falling in love with the manuscript– the manuscript is the most important thing.) But if twitter or Instagram or whatever is not your thing, dear potential author, don’t worry. The manuscript is the most important thing. At the very least, though, given the ubiquity of (or potential for) information, a website — even just a placeholder page with some bare bones information — is a good tool to have. If googling your name turns up some plumbing company a few states away, or a police report from 1997 that has nothing to do with you except some doppleganger with a colorful past who shares your name — well, it could be a good idea to just create a footprint of your own online with relevant info.
Krista: Are there any especially helpful books, websites or other resources you’d recommend to aspiring writers?
Daniel: Well, google can easily take you to an agent’s website, if the agent is actively looking to hear from new writers like you. PublishersMarketplace.com is an excellent site, and second to an agents own website, the most direct link (because we all update our own PM pages)– and generally, that website is the one we inside the industry use. If you’re writing children’s books, your local SCBWI chapter can be an invaluable place to start learning the business. The Novel & Short Story Writers Market (they also have editions for non-fiction writers, and also children’s book writers and illustrators) is a great tool as well, because ahead of the listings are articles and essays to give you a leg up on the process.
Krista: What are your favorite books (that you haven’t represented)?
Daniel: Too many to count! Some that spring to mind in this moment: The Witches (anything by Dahl, really), Middlesex, The Blind Assassin, Hugo Cabret, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, The Signature of All Things, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, This One Summer, An Unquenchable Thirst, Stiff, The 19th Wife, Water for Elephants, Audition (the Barbara Walters memoir–what a life!), The Glass Room, Cutting for Stone, Winger, One Came Home… How much more time do we have…?
Krista: If you could have dinner with three famous people, alive or dead, who would they be?
Daniel: As of this writing…. Mark Twain, Meryl Streep, and Dan Savage.
Krista: What’s something you’d love to do that you’ve never done before?
Daniel: As of this writing… take a vacation (I keep mulling the idea of seeing Versailles with my own eyes) where I *truly* unplug.
Krista: What are the best and worst foods you’ve ever eaten?
Daniel: The best foods are my grandmother’s yellow cake, my mother’s potato kugel, and any kind of (ideally red/pink/purple/berry-flavored) jello whipped and frozen with conviction. The worst foods are my mother’s dairy-free ice cream (I’m sorry, I still love you!) and any kind of jello that isn’t mixed well enough, so it has the grainy “crust.” Bleh. I feel very strongly about jello, I think.
Daniel Lazar is a literary agent at Writers House. Writers House is one of the largest literary agencies in the publishing industry. As a company, they represent a wide range of adult and children’s fiction and non-fiction.
Daniel is always on the lookout for distinct fiction and great, lively non-fiction. He represents adult and children’s books (and for children’s books, he focuses mainly on middle grade and YA). For fiction, he loves stories that introduce him to new worlds — or even better, recreate the ones he may already know. He also especially loves historical fiction of all kinds. For non-fiction, Daniel enjoys memoirs, narrative non-fiction, all stripes and studies of pop-culture, and even small gifty books that strike his fancy and make him smile. He’s a huge fan of graphic novels and memoirs. And as the oldest child of six who has changed many, many diapers in his life, Daniel is equally intrigued by any book with unique views on parenting and family life.
For more information on Daniel, his clients and submission guidelines, visit Daniel’s Publishers Marketplace page.
Also, be sure to follow Daniel on Twitter.
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